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Review: Diplomacy at Ensemble Theatre

By Rosie Niven

The year is 1944, and Adolf Hitler has just ordered the destruction of Paris in a last-ditch attempt to stop Allied Forces liberating the city. Explosives were placed at all major landmarks throughout Paris, and the death toll was estimated to be almost 2 million people if successful. General Dietrich von Choltitz oversaw the plan and was instructed by Hitler to do whatever he needed to do to ensure that Paris would not fall into enemy hands. But Paris is still here today, and the landmarks that should have been blown to pieces in 1944 stand tall in 2019. So what changed his mind?

Cyril Gely’s Diplomacy imagines an encounter on the morning that Paris was supposed to burn between von Choltitz (Bell) and Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling (Gaden), the man who single-handedly saved Paris from this Nazi attack. Through wit, quick thinking and compassion, Nordling talks him down from making that final call and killing all inhabitants of the city.

The show stars theatre veterans John Bell and John Gaden, whose names alone managed to sell out the entire season before opening night of its Australian premiere back in 2018. Off the back of this success, and with two theatrical greats taking to the stage, the encore season of Diplomacy had big shoes to fill.

It’s clear that these two names continue to be the main attraction even 12 months on - there were members of the audience in the foyer commenting that they couldn’t wait to see the two together on stage, or that they’d seen them last year and just had to come back again. In living up to expectations, both Bell and Gaden did not disappoint: both performers commanded the stage in what is predominantly a 2-hander play. Their years of experience on the stage was immediately obvious, the characters bouncing off each other brilliantly in a game of mental strategy. Gaden was absolutely the star of the show, and the charm and humanity he gave to Nordling made for a more dynamic interaction between the two. Unfortunately, some of the moments in the play felt lacking in energy and Direction, which meant the brief 75 minute play felt exhausting at points to focus on. Difficult too was processing the amount of different accents heard throughout the play - stepping into a German story, it was jarring to hear a range of Australian and English accents, especially when the characters were specifically acknowledged as German and Swedish. In addition, all smaller characters (played by Genevieve Lemon, James Lugton and Joseph Raggatt) felt under-utilised and a bit like unnecessary furnishings around the two main actors.

Diplomacy’s design is visually striking, and incredibly clean. The all-encompassing, half crumpled map of Paris (set design by Michael Scott-Mitchell) that covers the walls and floor stood as a constant reminder of the gravity of the decision von Choltitz was making, forcing us to face each of the monuments about to be obliterated. Genevieve Graham’s greyscale props and costumes are reminiscent of an old-school black and white movie, a nod to the period in which Diplomacy is set.

Diplomacy has some incredibly strong elements, from its actors to its design, but it feels as if the stakes are missing, and without them it is hard to empathise with any of these characters. When you bring a production back for an encore, you’ve set the bar very high for yourself, and in this case the show fell just short of that bar. The story doesn’t feel urgent enough to return in 2019, and while many Ensemble Theatre regulars will love this work, I think a wider audience will leave feeling underwhelmed.

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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