Ensemble Theatre, Sydney
March 29, 2018

Adolf Hitler apparently loved Paris. Shortly after German troops invaded the French capital in May 1940, the Führer took a sight-seeing tour there and was dazzled, seeing the city as “the jewel in the crown of the Third Reich” as John Bell put it in a recent article. However, four years later, when Allied Forces were closing in to liberate the city, Hitler issued orders that Paris be completely destroyed.

John Bell and John Gaden. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Explosives were placed at all the major railway stations and architectural, historical and cultural landmarks from Notre Dame to The Louvre to the Eiffel Tower. What’s more, there were no plans to evacuate the city’s two million inhabitants. The Nazis knew that between one million and two million people would die but Hitler was determined that the city shouldn’t fall into enemy hands, and that if he couldn’t have it, no one would.

The man charged with overseeing the destruction was General Dietrich von Choltitz. The man who took much of the credit for changing his mind was Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling. In his 2011 play Diplomatie (Diplomacy), French playwright Cyril Gély imagined the encounter between the two of them in the early hours of August 25, 1944 – the day that Paris was supposed to burn. Gély subsequently wrote the screenplay for Volker Schlöndorff’s 2014 film based on the play.

The Ensemble Theatre is now staging the Australian premiere of Gély’s play in a new, specially commissioned translation and adaptation by Julie Rose, with John Bell as von Choltitz and John Gaden as Nordling. Bell also directs, with his wife Anna Volska providing an outside eye as assistant director. The pulling power of Bell and Gaden, along with the subject matter, is such that the entire season had sold out before opening night. Audiences won’t be disappointed by Bell and Gaden, who both turn in terrific performances and bounce off each other beautifully, though the play itself is enjoyable rather than riveting.

Genevieve Lemon and John Bell. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Diplomacy is set in a room at Le Meurice, a hotel in the Rue de Rivoli where the German Military Government had its headquarters. The play features a cast of five but is essentially a two-hander – a game of brinkmanship between von Choltitz, who is exhausted and suffering from serious asthma, and the suave Nordling. It’s a neat, intelligent, well-made play running a tight 80 minutes but it lacks dramatic tension. Of course, we know that Paris didn’t burn but even so there should be more of a keen sense of the high-stakes game being played. It should be like a psychological chess game, instead it feels more like a less demanding game of checkers; it’s always interesting but never quite brings you to the edge of your seat.

Von Choltitz and Nordling are a study in contrasts. Where von Choltitz is the ramrod straight military man, the Parisian-born Nordling is debonair and cultured, with a dry sense of humour. Nordling insists that the Swedish Government is neutral but it is clear that he has ties with the French Resistance, and there is an intriguingly enigmatic quality to him. Gély’s characterisation of von Choltitz, however, needs more depth to ring really true.

James Lugton and John Bell. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Von Choltitz tells us that he has presided over the deaths of 30,000 Jews, and listens calmly without emotion while Werner Ebernach (James Lugton), the engineering officer in charge of mining Paris, explains what the explosives will do. But the man we meet is clearly adored by his orderly Frau Mayer (Genevieve Lemon), is a family man, and cares about his young soldiers. At times, it’s hard to marry the person we see with the ruthlessness we hear about – though Bell does all he can to convincingly portray the character’s conflicted nature. Gaden, meanwhile, is perfect casting as Nordling, capturing his suave personality with a natural ease and a genial twinkle in the eye.

Lemon and Lugton don’t have a great deal to do but are as impressive as you would expect two such fine actors to be, while newcomer Joseph Raggatt, a recent NIDA graduate, acquits himself well as the young soldier on guard outside von Choltitz’s room.

With lighting by Matt Cox, sound by Nate Edmondson and costumes by Genevieve Graham, Bell’s assured production unfolds seamlessly on an evocative set by Michael Scott-Mitchell. The back wall and floor is covered with a monochrome map of Paris, which looks great and serves as a constant reminder of all that would have been lost had von Choltitz obeyed orders.

Diplomacy runs until April 28 but is sold out

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