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28 June 2019 | 10:13 am | Sean Maroney

"There are no bells and whistles, only theatre with clarity." Pic by Prudence Upton.

It is August 1944. The Allied Forces have entered Nazi-occupied Paris. The German General stationed there, General Dietrich von Choltitz (John Bell) has been given a terrible order: annihilate Paris. Defeat is imminent but surrender is not an option. Germany will not be cowed; it is the Führer’s will. The General muses that it is easy to imagine destroying an entire city at night. You can’t see the spires or the sprawls of dwellings cobbled together over centuries of cultural evolution and tension. It’s just empty space. He asks his subordinate and trusted friend Frau Meyer (Genevieve Lemon) to pray that the night lasts for a hundred years. He alone knows what rough beast slouches towards the sleeping Parisians and the city of liberty and love. 

Raoul Nordling (John Gaden) is the diplomat that stands between Paris’ annihilation and liberation. Through a secret door that was used by Napoleon Bonaparte to see a mistress, Nordling enters Choltitz’s office. Here, the two men's intentions meet: destroy Paris because of an order; save Paris by convincing a man of a greater vision. 

Playwright Cyril Gély has stripped back action and superfluity to present a direct look at how people operate in war, under orders, with friends, under duress, and under ultimatums they have seemingly no idea of. Based on a true story and true characters, this historical drama is an engaging work of art. 

John Bell’s performance is understated and arrogant. It is well suited for the German general. Theatre-goers will be familiar with Bell’s register, and it is an exemplar of his particular style. Gaden performs Nordling with wit, charm, and cheek. He opposes the General’s straightforward manner and wins the audience early. We are witness to a sustained and fabulous tête-à-tête. Michael Scott-Mitchell’s stunning set design and Genevieve Graham's costume design mustn’t go unmentioned. The Parisian map that formed the backdrop to the office projected the audience into the city of love and lights. Bell’s direction is functional and precise. There are no bells and whistles, only theatre with clarity.

Diplomacy begins in a place you don’t expect, and takes a great number of insightful twists and turns to arrive at the reality that we know came to pass. For anyone interested in Bell, short and incisive theatre, or the possibilities of war and WWII, this is an alluring flame on the Sydney theatre landscape.