ROSS by Terrence Rattigan, directed by Adrian Noble, with Joseph Fiennes, Chichester Festival Theatre, Thursday 9th June, 7pm
It's the 1950s. The world is going mad! The natural order of things is turning upside down.
The Suez crisis, when the US refused to back the UK and France in confronting President Nasser of Egypt, whose army had blocked the Suez canal, and which occasioned a humiliating backdown by the European powers, occurred in 1956; Look Back in Anger, a play by John Osborne, premiered in 1956; Waiting for Godot, a play by Samuel Beckett, premiered in London in 1955; the Cambridge spies, Burgess and Maclean, defected in 1951; the film of Lawrence of Arabia, written by Robert Bolt (not Terrence Rattigan) and directed by David Lean, premiered in 1962.
Hell in a handcart and all that. You know what we need? Superman! (Superman, incidentally, was created in the mid-thirties in the US, by two teenagers. Don't even mention Nietzsche!)
Look, this is a review of an important play, expensively produced, with serious intent. Don't be flippant.
Starting again: sure, we've all heard of the Suez crisis, the moment when America made it absolutely clear who was running the world, but plays? And a film? Who cares, really?
I'm sorry, I can't help it. I have to go back to Superman; Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter, Superman in disguise.
Aircraftman Ross, mild-mannered RAF recruit, Lawrence of Arabia in disguise, bunking off like a naughty schoolboy to have dinner with the Archbishop of Canterbury. (No, no, nothing like that!)
Superman has a blue stretch suit, which fetchingly displays his chest; Lawrence of Arabia has white robes and a dagger, which fetchingly displays his natural authority over the numerous and warring tribes of Arabia.
An aside: scheduling this play in the centenary of the First World War, memorialising the historical Lawrence, and the Arabs, Turks and of course, British and Commonwealth soldiers who fought the battles in the Arabian Peninsula, is a serious and laudable undertaking. Lawrence, and others, prosecuted a guerrilla war, behind enemy lines, opening a second front against Turkey, an Axis ally, at a crucial moment in the struggle. They should be remembered with honour.
However, we're here to discuss a play, written in another historical context, which has to succeed or otherwise on its own terms.
Going back to the other plays I mentioned: it's accepted theatrical gospel (the actual events are always more complex, but what the heck, let's press on to the fun bit) that the premier of Look Back in Anger sounded the death knell for a certain kind of popular work, the middle class comedy of manners, represented by Terrence Rattigan. His career never recovered. The critics were now obsessed by Pinter and Godot and various angry young men, who wrote about undertakers and hobos. Craftsmen of the well-made play, whatever their politics, were passé.
My point is that Rattigan's sense of injustice, of being badly done by, chimed with the mood of the country, that Great Britain's place in the world was at risk, that things were on a slide, that the country had won the war and lost the peace.
The overwhelming impression given by this play is that of a Boy's Own Adventure. And I stress 'boy.' There are no girls, or women, in the very large cast and very few references, apart from Lady Astor and Mrs George Bernard Shaw.
Other characters: the Turkish Governor should be stroking a white cat; his off-sider has a humorous encounter with Lawrence when, sitting opposite him, he describes the man he is pursuing exactly as Lawrence appears - not the sharpest knife in the block.
The Arab Sheik is venal and greedy, childishly transparent in his motivations, also a comic creation. Lawrence, in loco parentis, leads him gently to the honourable way.
The horror occurs off-stage, perhaps betraying its filmic origins (scenes which would have been shown are now described) but also tending to reinforce the comic book character of the story. It all feels like jolly japes and crumpets after lights out in the dorm.
Film of actual violence simply doesn't cut through the essential artificiality of it all.
The way Rattigan seems to identify with Lawrence is remarkable. If Ibsen identified himself with his creation in The Enemy of the People, truth-tellers to an unappreciative populace, Rattigan seems to have a much grander role for himself in mind, a cultural pater familias of the nation perhaps.
Children's stories, comic books, offer consolation, stories in which good triumphs over evil. Sadly, grown-ups have a more urgent responsibility, to expose complexity, to see all sides of a situation, to take seriously historical events and to try to understand current issues with intelligence and empathy. Too much? Feeling patronised?
Plays need to entertain, don't they? And the theatre is fundamentally frivolous? What we need is a good laugh.
Ross was an evening of contradictions, but the audience had a very enjoyable time. Ultimately a pleasant sojourn into theatrical nostalgia, not to be taken too seriously. A bit like a Superman movie. Or finding an old, faded comic in the attic. Now that would be nice!