by Terence Rattigan
Directed by Adrian Noble
Designed by William Dudley
Music by Mia Soteriou
Sound designer Paul Groothius
Chichester Festival Theatre,
Tuesday 6th June 2016 evening
Joseph Fiennes – Aircraftsman Ross aka T.E. Lawrence
Paul Freeman – General Allenby
Michael Feast – Turkish military governor
Peter Polycarpou – Sheik Auda Abu Tayi
Navinder Bhatti – Turkish sergeant
Jorell Coffic-Kamali- Karim
Ian Drysdale – Colonel Barrington
Eban Figueiredo – Rashid
Brendan Hooper – Flight Sergeant Thompson
John Hopkins – Aircraftsman Dickinson / Flight Lieutenant Higgins
Nicholas Prasad – Hamed
Jay Saighal – Turkish captain
Nick Sampson – Franks, a press officer / Group Captain Wood
Peter Sandys-Clarke – Richard Storrs
Gary Shelford – Aircraftsman Parsons
Benjamin Wainwright- Flight Lieutenant Stoker
Christopher Walters – Mouth Organist
Rick Yale – Aircraftsman Evans
For the two years since rebuilding, Chichester Festival Theatre was my “theatre of the year.” This year, we looked at the list of productions with some disappointment. An obsession with the first part of the 20th century. Minor Ibsen. Galsworthy. Rattigan. A new play about World War One, First Light. Two musicals by the same songwriters, including one I loathed in its original version. Nothing cutting edge there at all. Enemy of The State has had five star reviews, lifted by brilliant production in part two, but I still found the intrinsic play dull and polemic. The jewel in the season is the revival of two RSC 2014 productions, Love’s Labour’s Lost (set in 1914) / Love’s Labour’s Won, i.e. Much Ado About Nothing (set in 1918). Nearly everything this season is set between 1900 to 1925. But, what? No original Shakespeare for the 400th anniversary of his death?
Ross is late Rattigan, written in 1960 when he was past his peak of popularity. From the title, one expects the story of T.E. Lawrence’s post-Middle East career as an ordinary aircraftsman in Dorset, where he later died after a motorcycle crash, though that was his second re-enlistment, this time as “Shaw”. His memorial in the tiny St. Martin’s church in Wareham is like the tomb of a medieval knight.
However, the story of Aircraftsman Ross in 1922 is a frame piece for a play that might have had more success if he’d called it Lawrence of Arabia as Sam Spiegel and David Lean did for their film in 1962. Ross was originally a film pitch. The London theatre run starred Alec Guinness as Lawrence (who went on to play Prince Feisal in Lean’s film). Rattigan pitched it with first Dirk Bogarde in the lead, then Laurence Harvey. Bogarde was a good choice, in that he had also done work with special forces and had been on Montgomery’s staff. Both Bogarde and Harvey were allegedly closeted gays, so one might detect an agenda with reference to T.E. Lawrence. Bogarde is said to have restricted his career by declining a studio arranged ‘publicity marriage’. Later Ian McKellen took the role on stage in 1970. Lean pitched his version of the Lawrence story with the rampantly heterosexual Peter O’Toole and made one of the biggest movies of all time: seven Academy Awards, plus three more nominations. The (excellent) programme notes by William Boyd start with this point. O’Toole was a tall, handsome and heroic figure as Lawrence, even if vicious. The real Lawrence was 5 foot 5 inches tall, stocky, and a deeply troubled figure. This is the Lawrence in Rattigan’s version, which is a truer and psychologically deeper portrayal than that magnificent 1962 adventure film. The story, or perhaps myth, is based on Lawrence’s own account, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, published in the year Ross takes place, 1922. Questions on its accuracy, the line between autobiography and fiction, were already being asked when Rattigan wrote the play. How large was Lawrence’s actual role in the defeat of the Turks? Ephraim Karsh wrote:
As Lawrence admitted, tongue in cheek, in a rare moment of candor in “Seven Pillars”: “My proper share was a minor one, but because of a fluent pen, a free speech, and a certain adroitness of brain, I took upon myself, as I describe it, a mock primacy.”
(Seven Pillars of Fiction, Wall Street Journal, 2013)
Lawrence (Joseph Fiennes)
The Chichester revival is timely. So much of the turmoil in the Middle East can be said to derive from the break up of the Ottoman Empire, a break-up assisted by Lawrence’s work with Arab forces. Someone with the wisdom of Solomon (or Suleiman) should have drawn the post-Ottoman boundaries along ethnic and Sunni / Shia lines, with a Kurdish state in there. As it was it was drawn arbitrarily under French and British protectorates or spheres of influence. The French got Syria and Lebanon. The British got Palestine and Iraq. Didn’t we both do well? The thing is, the British and French had divvied up the area in the Sykes-Picot Pact before the Arab Revolt began (which is dated to 6th June 1916, a 100 years to the day before we saw the play). Lawrence knew this, and he knew that his band of Bedouin warriors’ dream of an Arab state comprising the whole area was fantasy. This, Lawrence’s complicity in conning his own army, is one of the central themes of the play.
Rattigan’s play was a huge surprise to me. I shared the general disdain of my generation of students for his work. Yet two years ago Separate Tables at Salisbury was one of my favourite plays of the year. Last year, the Branagh version of Harlequinade was in my Best of 2015 list, and I couldn’t believe what a great comic writer he could be. I was worried about the military setting of Ross. Having seen Flare Path twice, a play that confirmed all the negative views I had, I think it’s fair to say that Rattigan’s portrayal of Other Ranks is not his strongest point. When you see that a humble aircraftsman named Evans is to be called Taff, and an ex-naval colleague is Sailor, and that the Flight Sergeant has a terrifying voice and manner, but a heart of gold, and then they’re going to bond by singing A Long Way To Tipperary, you fear that the sentimental view of the chaps in uniform will prevail, but with this director, and these actors, the RAF barracks sections all work superbly.
Lawrence & Rashid: good view of receding set and floor
Let’s not beat about the bush, in this production, Ross is a masterpiece. Rattigan had clearly spent the late 50s looking at the drama which had replaced him in critical acclaim. Ross starts out as a semi-comic play with very funny moments as Aircraftsman Ross is in trouble for alleged insubordination (no plot spoilers), then it flashes back to 1916 and the Arab revolt and has to move into historical epic dimensions with fast changing scenes. By the second half, Lawrence is a truly tragic lead figure, going through his beating and rape by the Turkish army, then we have his realization that he’s being pushed into being an iconic propaganda puppet. This is the point where the themes of guilt in gulling the tribesmen, and accusations of participation in what we would now call war crimes come to the fore. Then we move back into 1922, and a resolution, again with humour, and admittedly a small helping of sentimentality, but it all comes off. We remain intrigued by Lawrence’s motivation for disappearing, and it appears he simply seeks the companionship of the armed forces.
One pillar of wisdom, with Hamid (Nicholas Prased)
The set is at Chichester’s normal very high standard. The stage appears to be stones and sand, and three massive pillars (even on this huge stage they couldn’t get seven pillars on, but they do reflect) covered with Egyptian hieroglyphs. I wondered about the hieroglyphs, as none of it takes place in the Nile area, but I guess Arabic religious inscriptions would be dangerous territory. When we walked in, I murmured ‘It’s the Indiana Jones ride at DisneyWorld,’ but that’s just the huge symbolic setting for an ever changing area, where doors and elaborate desks ascend from below, film screens drop, Arab desert tents are draped, pits open in the floor for cellars; camp beds and flaming oil drums are carried on from the auditorium entrances. Screens connect short sharp set changes with grainy archive film. An on stage projector gives large background maps for General Allenby’s office, and the Turkish governor’s HQ. The projector makes great use of projecting shadows of the actors over the map at times. In many scenes, armed tribesman are standing about in the background, or sleeping on the stage, as tableaux. In the background loud whirling Arab music comes and goes, gunfire rattles, planes swoop overhead … the sound design is remarkable.
Sheik Auda Abu Tayi (Peter Polycarpou )
The direction and production quality is so good that I was beginning to assign all the credit to Adrian Noble as director, and to the actors, but Rattigan deserves acclaim too. There are so many odd funny lines and incidents punctuating even the darkest moments, such as Sheik Auda Abu Tayi (Peter Polycarpou) threatening the pompous Colonel Barrington (Ian Drysdale) then physically shaking him. The Sheik’s reaction to the Turkish bribe of a pair of false teeth is another comic interlude.
Lawrence hiding his face when Turkish captain visits Sheikh.
At one point, Lawrence has to commandeer a British army phone to announce the capture of the port of Aquaba by his motley band of irregulars. That’s one of the better one-sided phone conversations on stage, a sub genre on its own (and one lampooned by Tom Stoppard in The Real Inspector Hound).
The writing is powerful, and Joseph Fiennes is the man to deliver it in a virtuoso performance of depth and integrity. As Lawrence becomes an ever more broken, troubled, blood-spattered figure, the British establishment are horrified by his participation in summary execution of a murderer; killing his own side’s wounded before the enemy get to them, notably his closest friend and servant Hamid; and the fact that he stood aside and let his band of irregulars massacre Turkish prisoners. Rattigan, writing 56 years ago, was describing what happens now in exactly the same area on the news every evening. When questioned about the massacre, Lawrence describes it as a reprisal after his men had entered an Arab village earlier and found rows of women who had been bayoneted by the Turks … “bayoneted – obscenely” are the understated words.
General Allenby (Paul Freeman
The performances were convincing across the board. Joseph Fiennes deserved the three standing ovations at the end. Paul Freeman’s General Allenby showed intelligence in supporting Lawrence’s appointment, even when he discovered that “Captain Lawrence” who he had just promoted to Major, wasn’t even in the army. He’d been working in the map office in Cairo, found his superiors ignored civilians so simply “bought a uniform at the Army & Navy Stores.” We also found that Allenby’s interests were flowers and Chippendale furniture.
The Turkish Governor (Michael Feast)
Michael Feast was a creepy, sadistic Turkish governor, ordering the rape to break Lawrence’s will and spirit. Rattigan was right to include a rather languid Turkish captain (Jay Seighal) who was appalled by the treatment of Lawrence … it would have been too easy, given the slime of a governor, to have lined up the Turks simplistically as just “the baddies.” Nicholas Prasad as Hamid, Lawrence’s silent and truculent servant who gradually comes to be his greatest ally is another fine role. I did wonder whether the eventual cuddling was scripted, given the repeated assertion that Lawrence loathed any human contact. Some read Lawrence as asexual rather than the perceived homosexual.
Our verdict was an unequivocal five star production, and another mental note to trust Chichester, even when our first impression of their selection is negative.
I’ve made a note to cease mentioning my earlier disdain for Rattigan in reviews. Four times is enough!
* * * * *
Dominic Cavendish, Telegraph, * * * *
Michael Billington, Guardian * * *
TERENCE RATTIGAN PLAYS ON THIS BLOG:
- All On Her Own by Terence Rattigan, Kenneth Branagh Company 2015
- Flare Path, by Terence Rattigan, 2015 Tour, at Salisbury Playhouse
- Harlequinade by Terence Rattigan, Kenneth Branagh Company 2015
- Ross by Terence Rattigan, Chichester Festival Theatre 2016
- Separate Tables by Terence Rattigan, Salisbury Playhouse
- The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan (FILM VERSION)
- While The Sun Shines by Terence Rattigan, Bath, 2016
- French Without Tears by Terence Rattigan, ETT, Poole Lighthouse
ADRIAN NOBLE ON THIS BLOG
The Importance of Being Earnest (with David Suchet, 2015)