The year of the Rattigan continues as another of his forgotten fineries gets dusted off by Thea Sharrock, whose exquisite National Theatre production of After the Dance kick-started the centenary celebrations. If Sharrock falls short of repeating her previous alchemy, however, the Old Vic itself must take a portion of the blame. It simply cannot hold the play.
Oddly, one of the most striking things about Cause Célèbre is the way it defies the Rattigan archetype. You can easily imagine Aunt Edna choking on her boiled sweets, given its raw, panting sexuality and heated aggression. Cause Célèbre is no tamed three-acter, confined to drawing-room civility. In the way it wriggles around time and space, it’s jagged and complex, fidgety and ambitious. First produced in 1977, it rather debunks received wisdom that, post-1956, Rattigan was left unfashionably twiddling his thumbs, while the rest of the world clenched its fist.
That said, today, its handling of a court case looks rather like solid television drama. In the way it dramatises a real-life case, that of Alma Rattenbury (Anne-Marie Duff) and her 17 year-old lover George Wood, it prefigures Peter Morgan’s historical fictions.
With Alma’s husband murdered, both Alma and Wood claim responsibility to protect the other from a death sentence. She concocts an implausible story of her killing; he refuses to permit her influence. At sentencing they stand shoulder-to-shoulder, like a married couple at the altar, binding themselves together until death.
Duff, whose pallid colouring and pointed cheekbones recall Myra Hindley, makes Alma a muddle of gauche and louche. In the dock, she is frail, swaying on her feet as if on the point of collapse. Her eyelids hang with deadened disinterested or else her pupils fidget, refusing to settle. Yet, with Wood, all is flirtation: she flutters and her eyes catch the light mischievously. She appears, first of all, at the top of the stairs in patterned silk pyjamas, like a butterfly still on a surface. Beneath both versions is the callous control of Abigail in The Crucible.
Debutant Tommy McDonnell, by contrast, is a thudding clump of a creature as Wood. His arms hang at his like dead weights, knuckles occasionally grazing the floor. He speaks with a bark, often strained by emotions that overwhelm intellect. He’s like a Simon Stephens miscreant loosed in Rattigan’s world.
Both are contrasted with Niamh Cusack’s Edith Davenport, the jury forewoman whose moral absolutism turns to a self-imposed sainthood. Like Alma, her gaze is most often fixed on the middle-distance and both seem unworldly as a result.
It is in this ying-yang relationship that Cause Célèbre finds its impetus. Public morality is itself on trial here, given media-interest in the case. Beneath it is the ongoing scuffle between conservatism and liberalism. It is a war that, in spite of individual victories, the former inevitably loses.
On Hildegard Bechtler’s design, Sharrock’s production seems an oil painting. The darkness is often thick and heavy. Specks of light glance off pale faces. However, the playing style lacks the precision to match the vintage delicacy of the play itself (a quality, co-incidentally, found in Trevor Nunn’s production of Flare Path at the Haymarket).
Bechtler’s use of space does most damage. The attempt to meet the challenge of Cause Célèbre’s spatial and temporal discontinuity is clunky and inconstant. Sometimes the ceiling lowers to reveal a second stage, housed as if in a matchbox. Elsewhere, domestic action sometimes hovers in front of the courtroom and sometimes permeates it like a ghostly memory. The impression is of a play thrown at the stage, rather than strategically arranged.
Till 11 June 2011