Terence Rattigan’s 1974 BBC television script about Diaghilev, the genius impresario behind the Ballets Russes, and Nijinsky, the greatest dancer of all time, was mysteriously withdrawn before it could be filmed. Playwright Nicholas Wright explains how his new play interweaves Rattigan’s screenplay with the story behind its cancellation. Rattigan’s Nijinsky received its world premiere this week at Chichester Festival Theatre, as part of this year’s celebrations for the playwright’s centenary. The production runs in rep with Rattigan’s classic The Deep Blue Sea until 3 September.
The director Philip Franks rang me unexpectedly in September 2010 to ask if I’d be interested in adapting a Rattigan screenplay about Nijinsky. The usual form is for playwrights to be grandly equivocal when requests like this are made: ‘Mmm… I’ll need a few days to think about it.’ So my reply must have startled him. I had huge admiration for Terence Rattigan, I said, I’d been researching a play about Diaghilev’s company, the Ballets Russes, for years, though I hadn’t yet written a word of it, I loved classical dance and I was at that moment working with Christopher Wheeldon on a full-length Alice for the Royal Ballet. When could I start? We met and he gave me the script. As Philip had warned me, it wasn’t performable onstage: there were too many short, choppy scenes, crowded set-pieces, mandatory close-ups, packed auditoria, train rides and an enormous cast. In common with most good screenplays, the dialogue was sparse. But on its own terms it was excellent. The history of the Nijinsky/Diaghilev relationship, and of the Ballets Russes is a complex one. As always happens when people realise that what they’re creating is radically new, practically everyone involved felt compelled to write about it, and those who didn’t became the subject of scholarly biographies. Add to these a welter of programmes, newspaper announcements and reviews, and there cannot have been a minute in the life of Diaghilev’s company that hasn’t been documented somewhere or other. Rattigan’s brilliance was to fillet this mass of material down to a lucid and moving story about a love affair that was an emotional disaster but an artistic triumph.
I searched the script for clues to why he had written it. He must have known that an Edward Albee-scripted Nijinsky movie project, starring Nureyev and Paul Scofield, had recently had the plugs pulled on it by the producer, Harry Saltzman, and the commercial potential can’t have escaped him. But he must also have realised that he would be doing something very untypical: he would be writing an explicitly homosexual play. Did the knowledge that he hadn’t long to live fuel the desire, finally, to write about his own sexuality?…
How to stage the unstageable? A couple of paragraphs in Michael Darlow’s biography of Rattigan gave a clue. Nijinsky was commissioned by the BBC in 1972, as a potential ‘Play of the Month’. But when Romola, Nijinsky’s widow, got wind of the project she opposed it furiously. Legally speaking, she had no case, but her threats were so alarming to Rattigan that he persuaded the BBC not to produce the play during her lifetime. As he must have known, postponed projects never get made for the simple reason that everyone loses interest in them. Nijinsky was never produced. As Michael Darlow puts it, ‘Rattigan regretted this for the rest of his life.’
This seemed the perfect springboard for what Philip and I thought of as a ‘meta-play’ – one that not only provided the frame for a fine but unknown Rattigan creation, but saw through the picture, as it were, to give an impression of the man who wrote it, why he wrote it, what it meant to him and why he suppressed it. It was also a welcome opportunity to create a portrait, not of the smiling, imperturbable Rattigan of legend, but of a writer beset by his sense of failure, mortally ill and coursing towards a messy and angry death – just as the suave surfaces of his plays conceal disorderly passions.
This is an edited extract from Nicholas Wright’s Introduction to his ‘fascinating’ (The Times) new play – Rattigan’s Nijinsky. The full piece is printed in the playscript published by Nick Hern Books. To order your copy for £8.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).
To book tickets for the world premiere of Rattigan’s Nijinsky and The Deep Blue Sea playing at Chichester Festival Theatre click here.