So often plays think they are better than they are that it is refreshing to see one that is better than it thinks. Southwark Playhouse’s revival of Sir Peter Ustinov’s witty, light and largely forgotten play, The Moment of Truth is one with more insight into the effect of conflict on the human condition than any number of recent dour slogs that masquerade as serious political theatre.
Originally performed at the Adelphi in 1951, the play is loosely based on the machinations behind the creation of Vichy France, where the once-iconic French hero Marshal Petain politically colluded with his Nazi overlords. It begins with an anonymous Prime Minister (Miles Richardson) holed up in his quarters with his Foreign Minister (Mark Carey) and newly-appointed General (Callum Coates), as they watch the windows and wait for invading tanks to come trundling down the street.
Evidently, the political centre of this non-specific European country is fast crumbling and, while those around him are presaging doom or else preparing to fight to the bloody death, the Prime Minister announces his plan: to drag the aged military hero (Rodney Bewes) out of retirement to inspire and re-unify the fractious population.
The first half provides an odd mix of despair and humour, with Ustinov’s trademark wit sitting uneasily in a story rife with horror and conflict. But that is not to say the opening scenes don’t entirely work, Ustinov’s frivolous sense of humour gives the action a distance, a sheen of cynicism that is necessary, one supposes, when you subject a people to the frightful indignity of war.
Once the Marshal arrives, the depth of the Prime Minister’s pragmatism becomes all too clear. The old man has lost a great deal of his critical faculty, and spends much of the time forgetting people’s names or else worrying about his favourite plums. He’s a man on a stick, held up to pacify the marauding crowds and save, as it were, the prime ministerial bacon. There are flashes of clarity in his ramblings though, and pertinent they are too: in an early scene, the Marshal fixes his stare on the General, who despite being in the job all of five days, has bedecked himself with a dazzling array of insignia, medals and tassels. The Marshal calls him ‘major’, ignoring everyone else’s protestations: “Nonsense, the man’s a major,” says the Marshall, “I never forget a face; take off that silly uniform at once.”
The second half is a very different play. If the first half is Downfall written by Oscar Wilde, the second is King Lear written by George Bernard Shaw. The Marshal, now older and madder, has been shipped off to some desolate prison after yet another coup. And, with reminiscences of Lear in the wilderness, his nurse (Toni Kanal), daughter (Bonnie Wright), and a photographer (Daniel Souter), stand by the old man as he rages blindly at a gathering thunderstorm.
The Moment of Truth is not a perfect play, it may not even be a very good play, but through its uneven tone and occasional faltering step it does manage to convey something apt and interesting about the pointlessness and duplicitousness of war. War is never fought between nations or nation states, says this play, it is fought by fathers and friends and fiancés. And all too often these people fight, not so much for ideas, but for images presented to them in the press as truth. This play, for all its faults, knows there’s no such thing and perhaps it has been forgotten for so long precisely for that reason. That in 1951, Britain wasn’t quite so interested in seeing a play that told it something it so evidently already knew.
Laycock’s production is both well pitched and well paced and – though I disagree with the idea that this play in some way speaks to us about Syria or the “recent” Arab Spring (as the promotional material called it), it’s far too much a period piece for that – I do think the play deserves another airing. Special mention should also go to Bewes; instantly recognisable as Bob Ferris from old re-runs of the Likely Lads, he was a bemused and bewitching presence, flitting constantly between self-assuredness and helpless confusion. His was a touching and accurately nuanced performance, that showed tragedy at its most personal and appalling level.