Chichester Festival Theatre, W. Sussex
Opened 25 July, 2011
*** / **

Chichester celebrates Terence Rattigan's centenary with two repertoire pairings. Later in the season Rattigan's The Browning Version is presented along with David Hare's new response to it, South Downs. We begin, however, with a respectful revival of what is probably his greatest play, and an odd fantasia by Nicholas Wright based on an unproduced, unpublished BBC-TV screenplay Rattigan wrote in his final years.
Philip Franks is a scrupulous director whose approach ought to be closely in tune with the repression and unspokenness in much of Rattigan's work. He certainly elicits an air of 1950s propriety in The Deep Blue Sea, perhaps too much so. There is a danger that, the more authentic to its own era it may feel, the more alien, leaving us feeling less able to get beneath the skin of protagonist Hester Collyer, discovered after a suicide attempt and now undergoing the end of the one-sided love affair for which she left her judge husband. Thankfully Amanda Root modulates Hester's reflexive restraint so that we glimpse her Ibsenesque complexities, even if on this occasion the overall picture may not be quite so rounded.
In Rattigan's Nijinsky, the playwright reviews his TV script, argues with the dancer's now elderly widow and debates whether or not to withdraw the work from production, over the course of an evening in which his London hotel suite keeps dissolving into scenes from the screenplay itself, portraying the sexual and psychological complexities of Diaghilev and Nijinsky's relationship. But where we think of Rattigan as being restrained, these scenes are stilted, full of unsubtle exposition. If some of these lines are genuine Rattigan, they bid fair to ruin decades of painstaking rehabilitation. I recognise that Malcolm Sinclair's Rattigan is an "unreliable narrator", half-bombed on whisky and painkillers (so that he has several matter-of-fact dialogues with Diaghilev and one with his own dead mother), but I do not buy this as excusing lines, both in the play-within-the-play and outside it, which periodically simply go plonk. Only the couple of minutes of Rattigan's final phone call to his BBC producer seem appropriately Rattiganesque. The rest is... well, it's the sort of thing the BBC might produce today out of a misplaced reluctance to scare off viewers by demanding too much contemplation.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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