The Patriotic Traitor takes on the meaty, complex and tragic story of Charles De Gaulle (Laurence Fox) and Marshal Pétain (Tom Conti); the unstoppable force and the unmovable object. These two legendary men are part of the fabric of French history and their relationship was like that of father and son. Jonathan Lynn’s new play captures their story from 1913 to 1945, both men reminiscing about all that they went through together.

In the First World War, De Gaulle is an ambitious young officer under Pétain, who turns a desperate situation at the battle of Verdun into a successful defence. In the peacetime between the two world wars the play takes some large leaps forward in time, briefly showing De Gaulle and Pétain rising through the military ranks and De Gaulle’s marriage to Yvonne De Gaulle (Ruth Gibson).

In 1940, Marshal Pétain signs an armistice between occupied France and Germany, while De Gaulle decamps to London to lead the exiled French government and the Free French Forces. After France is liberated, De Gaulle puts Pétain on trial for treason for collaborating with the Nazi government. We join the action as Pétain waits for the verdict. He tells his story to the prison chaplain, triggering a series of flashbacks which show the pivotal moments in his friendship with De Gaulle.

Pétain is remembered as a Nazi sympathiser, but The Patriotic Traitor suggests that the truth is more complicated than that – Pétain tried to do what was right for France and was forced into more and more painful compromises. In this telling, the line between obeying the Nazi regime and being a sympathiser is blurred. There are also undertones of his deteriorating mental state, as he goes through pre-dementia cognitive decline.

Conti gives a superb performance, as an immensely likeable and nuanced Pétain who places his dilemmas before the audience for judgement. Fox evokes the uncompromising intellect and moral fibre of De Gaulle with a resolute and stony face, but shows us the occasional cracks through which his fear and sorrow seep out. They are supported by the excellent cast, particularly Ruth Gibson who is dignified and elegant as De Gaulle’s wife.

Lynn’s tight, pacy dialogue shows the evolving bond between two great men. It is witty, filled with quips and teasing. De Gaulle in particular enjoys a crisp, almost Spartan use of language which lends itself to this play’s wry sense of humour. Reflecting the tendency of an army to deal with the horror of war through comedy, The Patriotic Traitor is a very funny play. Both Conti and Fox deliver their many great lines with the timing and gravitas they deserve. Lynn’s irreverent wit shows us the absurdity of wartime politics and the buffoonery of military high command, and plays up national stereotypes to great effect.

The Patriotic Traitor deals with the eternally relevant themes of friendship, leadership, heroism and betrayal. One of the most successful scenes show De Gaulle and Pétain unpicking the philosophy of Nietzsche while drunk on cognac. This play also invites us to consider much deeper questions – how do you define a nation? Is France the fields and houses and people that populate it, or is it a higher ideal that unites people with a common spiritual belief?

Pétain is a realist, who believes that he saved France by taking the defeat upon his shoulders and collaborating with the Nazis. De Gaulle is an idealist and believes that he saved France by keeping its spirit of freedom and equality alive, even when its territory was occupied.

This highly polished and impressive play has all the shine of a ceremonial uniform. It handles big themes with a light, intelligent touch, witty writing and bold performances.

Reviewed by Annabel Mellor
Photo: Helen Murray