For his Centenary Year, much of Terence Rattigan’s work has been given a dusting down and found its way back to the stage. Beneath the dust, however, it has become clear that Rattigan’s plays are not the dated and snobbish depictions of an age past that they were once purported to be, but a series of achingly relevant examinations of the human condition and the way in which we deal with both pain and passion.
In Flare Path, the story of an actress torn between love, in the shape of film star Peter Kyle, and duty, this being her Flight Lieutenant husband Teddy, it is clear that the subject of this play was dear to Rattigan’s heart. The audience has a heightened sense of insight due to the playwrights’s experiences as a tail gunner in the RAF during the Second World War, particularly due to the fantastic way in which Rattigan writes the bantering dialogue of the pilots themselves, littering it with airforce slang. In Trevor Nunn’s production, the excitement and fear of the pilot’s take off is shown by the screen projection of planes taking off above the set, watched with apprehension by wife Patricia (Sienna Miller) and the Squadron Leader (Clive Wood). However, the emotional complexity of life as a pilot, revered for bravery, but internally struck with fear, comes in an excellent scene in which Patricia’s husband, Teddy (Harry Hadden-Paton in a stand out performance), breaks down after returning from a night of flying. ‘You don’t know what it’s like to be frightened,’ Teddy laments, and the distinction between the ordinary heroics of these men, juxtaposed with the whimsical, superficial unreality of film stars is brought devastatingly to the fore. Patricia’s final decision is portrayed with classic Rattigan understatement; there is no extravagant declaration of love, simply a choice to stand beside one man whilst letting the other walk away, unnoticed.
Rattigan’s versatility is demonstrated in Cause Celebre, his dramatization of the real life case of Alma Rattenbury, accused of killing her aging husband with her teenage lover. The struggle between moral respectability and carefree hedonism is portrayed by prim jury forewoman Edith Davenport (Niamh Cusack) and woman on trial, vivacious Alma (Anne-Marie Duff). Rattigan’s skilled characterisation makes Alma so likable that we find ourselves rooting for someone that may not necessarily behave in a way that is morally acceptable, aided by an infinitely charming performance by Duff. A particularly striking scene sees Alma drunkenly confess murder to a police officer shortly after her husband’s death. Duff’s playful performance switches to heartbreaking in a matter of seconds, and her portrayal of Alma allows us to see her as a figure in which comedy and tragedy are often not exclusive, but mingled irretrievably together, in a life that sought adventure often without realising the consequences. A floating room above the set being used for scenes in prison and re-enacting the murder brought to mind an illustration of purgatory, suggesting the indefinite nature of Alma’s fate, and the scenes in which other characters discussed the case with some wonderment emphasised the long life of our engrained celebrity culture.
These two stunning revivals of Rattigan’s plays are just a few amongst the many that will be gracing stages across the country, and they indicate exactly why it is necessary that we celebrate his centenary year. With understated emotions, things implied rather than said, and quiet comments upon a society that hasn’t changed as much as we may think, Terence Rattigan’s work has been dusted down, and its rediscovery should ensure that these quiet masterpieces are not forgotten again.