Review – Rattigan’s Nijinsky, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 20th August 2011

Chichester Festival TheatreFor this year’s Chichester trip, we thought we’d immerse ourselves in the joys of Terence Rattigan’s centenary year. So on a whirlwind day out, we took in a matinee and an evening performance of two different plays, one a Rattigan perennial, the other a more experimental experience, both directed by Philip Franks, and with a number of the same actors in both.

Rattigan's Nijinsky A few years before he died, Rattigan was working on a TV screenplay about Nijinsky (not the racehorse) and his relationship with Diaghilev. The story goes that Rattigan pulled it from the BBC production team because of an argument about its content with Nijinsky’s widow Romola. Thus it was never made, performed or even published. “Rattigan’s Nijinsky”, by Nicholas Wright, takes Rattigan’s screenplay – or some of what remains of it – and creates a new play with Rattigan himself centre stage, in a suite at Claridge’s, having meetings with Romola and his BBC director, but principally seeing his screenplay unfold through his mind’s eye; observing the interactions between Nijinksy, Diaghilev, Romola, and his other characters. So there is the challenge for the director – making the reality of the Claridge’s suite and the imagination of the screenplay co-exist on the stage.

In the words of Linda Barker, I thought it worked really well. The occasional change of lighting, and occasional soft sound effect, help separate the two but for the most part, it’s as real on stage as it is real in Rattigan’s mind. Upstage becomes a dance studio or a ship’s deck; centre stage is Claridge’s sofa and champagne, with characters from the hotel drifting in alongside characters from the story. But what’s the purpose behind it all? My original thoughts were that a lot of it was about the vividness of the creative experience – Rattigan imagining the play going on around him – enjoying some of it, finding other parts disturbing, rather like an ordinary member of the audience. Mrs Chrisparkle felt it was more of a drug trip. Rattigan’s declining health is causing a lot of pain and he frequently reaches for a dodgy elixir acquired in Bermuda. The more he drinks this painkiller, the more bizarre some of the apparitions become. On reflection, I think she’s got it right. This raises lots of interesting questions about what is real and what is imagined, and gives the whole play an additional dimension of curiosity.

Joseph DrakeHaving the same actor play Nijinsky and Donald the room-service boy, who wants to provide Rattigan with something distinctly off-menu, (or is that Rattigan’s wishful thinking?) is very effective as characteristics of the one get merged into the other. Joseph Drake puts in two very good performances in what must be a physically demanding two and a half hours, with several costume as well as character changes. Similarly, Jonathan Hyde plays both Diaghilev and Cedric the BBC man. These two characters couldn’t be further apart. Jonathan HydeDiaghilev is eerily elegant, with something of the vampire in his appearance, feasting on easily-led young men, and not used to being thwarted; Cedric is a scruffy laid-back guy, appreciative of Rattigan’s artistry but more concerned with the practicalities of dealing with the BBC hierarchy. Jonathan Hyde captured the essence of both men really well, and despite his affected appearance made Diaghilev a totally believable character.

It’s not all deep and meaningful. The scene with Cedric, for example, is also hilarious, as is the scene between Rattigan and his mother, and much of the play has a very nice undercurrent of humour that keeps it moving along. Personally I thought the second act got slightly bogged down at one stage; Mrs Chrisparkle thought I was being too critical. Chenin Blanc Maybe that was the effect of the interval glass of Chenin Blanc that I can highly recommend. Something we both completely agreed about was a really awful moment early on in the play when Nijinsky as a boy is being taken through his paces by the Ballet Master. The boy is challenged to leap high, over a stick held out by the Ballet Master; which the boy then raises, implying he can leap higher than that. Nice, I thought; shows his confidence and arrogance, and also implies he’s a damn good leaper. But then his leap is represented by them lifting the boy up so that he is held in a tableau pose that I can only say makes him look like Michael Flatley’s love child in some nightmare form of “Lord of the Dance”. It’s ridiculous, unsubtle and a bit embarrassing. I’m sure a talented director like Mr Franks could have found a better way of communicating that to the audience. No criticism of young Jude Loseby playing the nine-year-old Nijinsky who I thought otherwise was rather good.

Malcolm SinclairAt the heart of the play is Malcolm Sinclair’s performance as Rattigan. He’s quite a favourite actor of ours, having been in the wonderful Racing Demon earlier this year – we still don’t understand why that didn’t transfer. Here again he commands the stage with a natural authority, engaging easily with the audience so they are completely on his side; his facial expressions and vocal delivery allowing us to see into the real Rattigan, the one we could never see when he was alive. It’s a great performance – but I also think Nicholas Wright has written a pretty good role too. I confess I was moved to buy the play text afterwards.

Susan TracyIt’s an excellent ensemble, and everyone carried it off well; perhaps an additional mention to Susan Tracy as (inter alia) the elder Romola, full of tight-lipped ire in a superbly well-written scene, and also as Rattigan’s mother, desperately trying to pry into her son’s private life but still never seeing the truth.

It’s an experimental production, and definitely worth the experiment. It gives you much to think about, and is definitely one of those plays you discuss for some time after. I still think a lot of the play is about the creative experience – something I always enjoy in a piece. I also find it satisfying when the characters don’t end up at the same place as where they started – and Rattigan’s character development keeps you on edge, let alone the very active and absorbing story about Diaghilev and Nijinsky. The audience at last Saturday’s matinee was disappointingly small – perhaps half full – but very enthusiastic in its response. There are only three performances left before it closes on 3rd September; if you can get it to see it, I would highly recommend it.

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