Spotlight: RATTIGAN’S NIJINSKY at Chichester Festival Theatre

Nicholas Wright

Nicholas Wright, author of Rattigan's Nijinsky

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the genius impresario behind the Ballets Russes, and Nijinsky, the greatest dancer of all time, was mysteriously withdrawn before it could be filmed.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.

Rattigan's Nijinsky

Rattigan's Nijinsky, £9.99

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.

Advertisements

TERENCE RATTIGAN special

Dan RebellatoAs the plays of Terence Rattigan once again take centre stage during his centenary year, Dan Rebellato, academic, playwright and editor of the NHB Rattigan collection, argues that Rattigan has been unfairly cast as the writer of stuffy, conservative drama, and that his plays are consummate in their emotional power and sensitivity.

How did I first come across Terence Rattigan’s work? Aged 12, I was Taplow in a school production of The Browning Version. I got to start the play, which was a bonus; I ate a chocolate, got taught how to grip a golf club, and had to speak bits of Ancient Greek, which was nicely show-offy; also I was textually obliged to take the piss out of the older boy playing Crocker-Harris. I thought it was a hoot and was surprised when we took our curtain call on first night to see members of the audience in tears.

Flash forward a decade or so and I’d begun a PhD looking again at the theatrical revolutions of 1956. Armed with a revisionist historiography, I’d noted that the success of the Royal Court, Look Back in Anger and so on, was so overwhelming that it had cast the twenty or so years beforehand completely into shadow. I have always been interested in post-war British theatre, reading voraciously plays, histories and books of reviews; but apart from An Inspector Calls, The Mousetrap and my vague memory of being in The Browning Version, I knew next to nothing about that era and I wanted to find out whether it really was sentimental, conservative and, in Arthur Miller’s famous – but presumably not all that well informed – remark, ‘hermetically sealed off from life’.

Browning Version & Harlequinade jacket

Browning Version & Harlequinade by Terence Rattigan

It was a wonderful adventure in research. The drama of the forties and early fifties was so little a part of my theatre education that going into the archives and research libraries to find the plays, magazines and debates of the time I felt –  and PhD researchers often report these feelings – like Howard Carter coming across the tomb of Tutankhamun. Play after play dazzled me with its originality, its strangeness, its political sophistication, its formal elegance and beauty, its unfamiliar playfulness with the audience. It was, I thought, a radically different theatre, with its own rules, and as much of a claim to serious attention as the remarkable work done at the Royal Court.

Chief among these discoveries was Terence Rattigan. Re-reading The Browning Version I could now see why the audience was crying: it’s a perfect miniature – still perhaps the finest one-act play I know – and one that aches with yearning and a profound sense of the pain and humiliation in the very tiniest moments of casual disregard. In the same summer I read him chronologically through the forties and fifties – Flare Path, While the Sun Shines, The Winslow Boy, Love In Idleness, The Browning Version, The Deep Blue Sea, Separate Tablesand with each play my eyes widened further, my jaw dropped lower at his technical accomplishments, and the ever-greater emotional richness of his work.

Flare Path jacket

Flare Path by Terence Rattigan

The journey from apprentice to master is almost inexorable. Flare Path is elegant, heartfelt, sincere and warm, full of empathy, a patriotic melodrama perhaps, but one finely wrought for its audience. By the time you get to The Deep Blue Sea, Rattigan is writing as challengingly and profoundly about human feeling as anyone in the century. It’s telling that critics reproved Rattigan for not killing off the Count in Flare Path, who returns miraculously before the final curtain and also for not killing off Hester Collyer, whose suicide is threatened throughout The Deep Blue Sea. But in 1942, he was too conservative for the critics. A decade later, the critics had become too conservative for him.

A play on the page is one thing, of course, and on the stage it’s another.

I approached Karel Reisz’s 1993 Almeida production of The Deep Blue Sea with some trepidation. What if the play didn’t really stand up in production? Perhaps the carpentry would become too apparent when real actors have to play those lines? As it happened though, the production in its original setting (for it lost a little something when it transferred into the West End, and more still when it was refitted for TV) was the finest Rattigan production I’ve ever seen. More than anything else, this was the production that secured Rattigan’s reputation for the twenty-first century.

From the very beginning, as the neighbours let themselves into Hester’s flat, I was shocked by the horror of the story unfolding before me, the slowly brutal estrangement of Hester and Freddie. In the last moments before the interval, Hester is getting her lover ready for his interview, polishing his shoes, adjusting his collar. Freddie breaks the news that he’s leaving her and makes to go, grabbing his shoes. ‘I haven’t finished them,’ she screams, a detail filled with her desperation. I found myself convulsed with tears.

After The Dance jacket

After the Dance by Terence Rattigan

One of the great pleasures of editing these new editions for Nick Hern Books has been the chance to spend weeks and weeks in the company of these beautiful plays. Thanks to the superbly archived Rattigan Papers in the British Library, I’ve been able to trace the emergence of these plays through successive drafts, letters to friends, arguments with directors and actors, and their rise and fall and rise again through successive productions.

Does Rattigan have anything to tell us now about how to write plays? Sure he does. It’s important to distinguish his techniques from the inflated shorthand about the ‘well-made play’. Rattigan never followed the well-made play rules slavishly, he had his own sense of how to tell a story. There’s no ‘obligatory scene’ in After the Dance; there is nothing nineteenth-century about the structure of Cause Célèbre; Hester doesn’t follow Paula Tanqueray into a convenient grave. Rattigan’s real dramaturgical genius is to generate fathoms of subtext that the actor and the audience can fill. He knew the value of a simple sentence – ‘I haven’t finished them’ – that can bring an agonised gasp of understanding from an audience.

Rattigan always used that theatrical understanding to generate emotional and sexual understanding. Look no further than Separate Tables’s final scene; it’s a scene all about alternative sexuality, liberalism, tolerance, and the rejection of prejudice. And it’s entirely conducted through small talk about the weather and horse racing. The audience member who doesn’t find themselves inwardly cheering like a mad thing has a heart of stone.

Cause Célèbre jacket

Cause Célèbre by Terence Rattigan

This year is Rattigan’s centenary. He would, I am sure, been gratified to see the flurry of productions that are marking the occasion. Deep Blue Seas in Yorkshire and Chichester (and a movie on the way), Flare Path, Less Than Kind, Cause Célèbre in London, In Praise of Love in Northampton, The Browning Version and Nicholas Wright’s adapted version of Rattigan’s unproduced screenplay Nijinsky in Chichester, and seasons of his work on radio, TV, film, and even a new exhibition on the playwright’s works at the British Library.  It’s clear that his critical rejection in the 1960s hit him very hard. In some ways I think it killed him. The esteem in which he is now held has been a long time coming and I think Nick Hern’s decision (brave in the early 90s) to republish the plays in individual critical editions has played a part in that. Thankfully though, this change in his critical fortunes began before he died; I say ‘thankfully’ because he was a man devoted to audiences, not slavishly trying to please, but always to engage with them, seduce them, shake and move them. So, when In Praise of Love and Cause Célèbre were, rightly, well received, it buoyed him.

The latter was still running when his death was announced in 1977. The next night, at the end of the curtain call, Glynis Johns (the actor playing Alma Rattenbury) stepped forward and asked the audience to join her in three cheers for the play’s author. ‘We decided against standing in silence,’ she explained. ‘He was, after all, a man who liked applause.’

Click here to view the full collection of Terence Rattigan plays published by Nick Hern Books. As a special offer to our blog readers, we are offering a 25% discount (with free p&p, UK customers only) across our full list of Rattigan plays. Simply add ‘Rattigan Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (your discount will be applied when your order is processed).

Click here to view the full range of events marking this year’s Rattigan Centenary.