at the Old Vic, Wednesday 8th June 2011
Whilst I’m not utterly convinced that the fuss over Terence Rattigan on the 100th anniversary of his birth is healthy for British Theatre, it must be conceded that Thea Sharrock has done a stunning job of rekindling the nation’s love for this playwright. Following the success of After The Dance at the National last year, Cause Célèbre does wane somewhat in comparison, however, for the strengths in the production highlight the weaknesses in the text.
This is definitely not Rattigan’s best play; it is sexist, misogynistic, snobby, uber-conservative and -perhaps most appallingly of all – somewhat dull. The bulk of the play concerns itself with the trial and public humiliation of Alma Rattenburg for the murder of her husband with the help of her lover, George Wood. She is particularly hated by Edith Davenport, the jury forewoman, who asserts that she cannot be fair in judging the defendent because of the disgust she feels towards her moral character. The play then descends into an argument about whether or not Alma should be found guilty simply for her moral ‘repugnance’, regardless of her innocence. She is painted as the devil-woman, even though there is little reason to deem her so, especially in the 21st century.
But here’s the issue; it seems at times that Rattigan sympathises with the haters, and we can’t be too careful in a Tory age of our moral vision becoming blurred. No adulterer deserves to be lynched, yet all Cameron’s talk of ‘family values’ means this could end up once again becoming truth. No matter how beautifully written and well structured Rattigan’s plays are, we can’t get past the fact they are hardly representitive of a liberal society.
Sharrock’s production makes some good points about verisimilitude, showing us some of the contradictory statements in a hazy atmosphere, forcing us to question what we take as fact. There are also some interesting links to the modern day, with all its talk of celebrity and mob-mentality resonating in an injunction era. One of Alma’s wardons tells her that her music “will sell very well” following the publicity of the trial.
Hildegard Bechtler’s astonishing set is incomprehensively versatile, moving from vast unforgiving cavern to cosy living room without a sound. It is lit with warmth by Bruno Poet, who manages to distract us during crucial moments so that various coup-de-theatres can be performed.
As always, Sharrock’s skill is evident in the direction of her actors, and three performances in particular stand out. Nicholas Jones’ portrayal of O’Connor, the defendent lawyer, is remarkably intelligent, and he alone carries the narrative of the second half of the play. Niamh Cusack is horribly unforgiving as the vindictive Edith Davenport, but does show moments of humanity. In the lead role of Alma Rattenbury, Anne-Marie Duff provides a stellar performance, showing the horribly contradictory nature of someone troubled by inner termoil and all the while remaining incredibly reserved.
Although this is a strong, accomplished and striking production, it is difficult not to question Rattigan’s insistence on reminding us that Alma’s ethics are questionable, taking away the decision from the audience. There is no doubt that this is a dramatic piece of theatre, but Cause Célèbre makes it evident that Rattigan should never be held in too high esteem by the British theatrical establishment.