“I have saved millions of lives, and they will thank me by killing me”. So goes the paradox of politics: the ‘good guy’ is often the tyrant, and those that seek to selflessly serve others are vilified. Peter Ustinov’s The Moment of Truth at the Southwark Playhouse’s new location in Elephant and Castle is based on the collaboration between Marshal Phillipe Petain and Pierre Laval with Nazi Germany. In a bid to end the slaughter during WWII, the French Prime Minister Laval and the mascot of WWI, ‘the Marshal’, attempt to woo the French citizens into accepting new terms – a form of surrender – to Germany; of course, when the Allies arrive, Laval and the Marshal are punished for their collaboration by being shot and imprisoned respectively.
With the audience on three sides, this production feels intimate despite the large auditorium, and within this potentially oppressive and depressing story, there is much comedy to be enjoyed. The predicament that the politicians and military men find themselves in, especially as they battle with the rather loopy Marshal in his wheelchair, sets up the humanity and humility in this situation perfectly. The acting in this play is sublime, with Rodney Bewes as the Marshal and Miles Richardson as the Prime Minister both stealing the show. The nuanced comedy from Richardson is wickedly funny, and stage veteran Bewes is delightfully frustrating as the Alzheimer-ridden soldier battling with his past.
Bonnie Wright, best known for playing Ginny Weasley in the Harry Potter movies, is petulant and determined as the Marshal’s daughter, and given that this is her stage debut, she is forgiven for her often one-note line delivery. She does however shine when faced with her former lover; it is heart-breaking to watch her memories slip away as she attempts to beat him out of his silence.
The set, designed by Alex Marker, is also very malleable, transforming from a cabinet office to a cliff-top exile. Director Robert Laycock plays it safe in many of his directorial decisions, yet the naturalism of the staging and performances are what makes this play so chillingly real. The climatic ending of course brings home the message loud and clear; with war, suffering, and sacrifice raging all around, principles can only ever be skin-deep, and it takes an event of tremendous personal relevance to enable one to see a flash – a moment – of this truth.
**** (4 stars)
Runs until 20th July 2013