The Moment of Truth

Peter Ustinov
The New Actors Company
Southwark Playhouse
to

First produced in 1951, The Moment of Truth saw Peter Ustinov drawing on recent history, presenting a situation not unlike that of France in 1940 facing imminent defeat by German forces.

The French government then recalled Maréchal Pétain from retirement, a hero to the French because of his military leadership in World War One, and brought him into the government, making him Prime Minister just before the signing of an armistice with Germany and the creation of Vichy France.

Set in an un-named republic with characters known only by their position, the play takes a satirical approach to the situation but the comic edge does not blunt the seriousness of Ustinov’s argument.

With all but one of his cabinet ministers having resigned and fled and the sound of the guns getting ever closer, the Prime Minister argues with his Foreign Minister and a newly-appointed general that the time has come to admit defeat and to save thousands from pointless slaughter. He reckons they will get better terms if they bring back the Marshal as a figurehead whom the enemy respect, even though he now is going gaga. The General goes off to rejoin the troops, the Foreign Minister stays and the Victor arrives.

But what happens when the tide of war turns and the General returns with a liberating army? In the same room, where the banners now bear the faces and the lighting flash of the Victor superimposed upon the national flag, who will flee and who will stay?

How do we judge the decisions politicians made, even politicians as arrogant as these whose sense of nation and patriotism has so little to do with people, people who are more concerned about the ones they love than any idea of nation?

Miles Richardson is the heartbeat of the play as the suave Prime Minister, shooting up with trepidation to keep himself functioning but otherwise always calmly and pragmatically in control. Rodney Bewes, playing with his campaign charts and lead soldiers as the Marshal but still seeing himself as the great authority, is delightfully gaga, reacting like one of Pavlov’s dogs to the calculated prompts of Toni Kanal’s Nurse.

In the final scene, when the Prime Minister has already met the same fate as Pierre Laval, he totters along the battlements on the island where he is held, like Napoleon on St Helena, shaking his sabre at a thunderstorm or cradling his daughter. Ustinov echoes Lear’s raging and his recognition of Cordelia.

What had previously seemed a clear-cut piece of writing now becomes awkward and confusing. Perhaps he wanted to contrast the banality of what is happening with the tragedy of Lear. Perhaps this is intended as the Marshall’s “moment of truth”, just as earlier the Prime Minister had his in realising what matters most to other people, but I would have seen how the Prime Minister faced his situation for he was a much more interesting character.

The Daughter, trying to protect her father from the politicians and losing her lover by staying with those who agree the armistice, is doing what she thinks her duty but, as Bonnie Wright makes clear in her performance, she is motivated by love for her father and movingly has to face rejection from her gas-masked lover when he returns as liberator.

Damian Quinn is charming and likeable as the Victor, no Nazi monster. The Foreign Minister (Mark Carey) and the General (Callum Coates) with their “patriotism” and self-importance at least convince themselves that their expediency is duty and only the Photographer (Daniel Souter), called in to create the images that sway the public, makes no claim to any values; he simply absolves himself from all responsibility, a lackey doing others' bidding. Ustinov seems to indict him even more than the others.

Howard Loxton