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FringeReview UK 2016


Chichester Festival Theatre

Genre: Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre


Low Down

Joseph Fiennes leads a cast directed by Adrian Noble in this timely Chichester Festival Theatre revival of Rattigan’s 1960 Ross about Lawrence of Arabia. A strikingly simple design by William Dudley is offset with lighting by Paul Pyant.


Adrian Noble revives Rattigan’s 1960 play Ross about Lawrence of Arabia at Chichester’s Festival Theatre starring Joseph Fiennes with a strikingly simple design by William Dudley and lighting by Paul Pyant.


Ross ushers in Rattigan’s late phase; the opening scenes alone show he’s learnt from the very kitchen sink dramatists who put him out of fashion (conversely, it probably inspired Wesker’s 1962 RAF National Service Chips With Everything). Amongst other things, it’s a funny play and its comedy – both broad and understated – will ensure its durability. There’s a social amplitude, fluidity, a willingness to raid contemporary news that looks forward to his last play, Cause Celebre. Indeed Dudley uses flickering sepia projections from the revolt itself to offset the lack of camels on the stage, which just about fit. But it also recalls elements of the wartime Flare Path and inevitably the troubled Adventure Story from 1949, about another troubled conqueror of Arabia, Alexander.


Portraying a controversial modern titan inevitably mires Rattigan in how far this is accurate, rather than how good a play – and this drama really deserves to mark Rattigan’s return to form. Even this production’s not immune from such speculation.


Before enjoying this traversal, it’s worth touching on the pivotal moment Rattigan chooses, used as a rod to beat his dramaturgy: Lawrence’s ordeal at the hands of Turks at Deraa. This is Rattigan’s key to how the Alexander-like Lawrence in flowing white robes leading the Arab Revolt through Aqaba and on to Damascus, became the soft-spoken, insubordinate little airman called Ross up on a charge with the duty Flight Lieutenant.


In choosing such an explicit moment Rattigan dares more than Lean’s film which borrowed innuendo but not Rattigan’s rationale in trying to square Lawrence’s account – the only one we have – with how this could both be true and an explanation for later behaviour. Criticism of Ross hinges on this.


Even after more recent biographies the most penetrating –admiring as it forensically unmasks – is the 1977 one by Arabist and novelist Desmond Stewart, who first suggests the Deraa violation was a fiction: that Lawrence was awakened by ritual flogging ‘at the hands of a sturdy young Arab {he} both respected and loved.’ Stewart admires the ‘Odysseus-like’ military genius as revealed in Seven Pillars of Wisdom – Lawrence’s 1926 campaign account enshrined in the pillared set wittily quoted by William Dudley in his versatile, stripped-back design. Lawrence, Stewart asserts, invented much else, including rewriting Seven Pillars from memory after losing it at Reading station! It took Stewart to get the Wildean joke.


So what if Rattigan backs the wrong camel for Colonel Lawrence? He downplays Lawrence’s guilt at failing the Arabs, having a Group Captain quote lines Lawrence intoned about ‘getting out with clean hands’. This isn’t enough for that Lawrence – clearly wracked at some level. But it’s enough for the play, and what Rattigan means by it. Rattigan’s as brave as he can be about Lawrence’s deepest nature. In this he triumphs more than most dramatists till then about repressed sexuality.


Ross is framed by two sections in December 1922. RAF Uxbridge, awkward thirty-four year old recruit Airman Ross, marched in to account for his eighteen-minute lateness. This quick-fire exchange recalls the lightness of French Without Tears. Ross has bike-skidded returning from Cliveden. Forced to name witnesses – ‘The Shaws, Archbishop of Canterbury’ – he’s put on a charge.


He’s not the only educated ranker he’s told, there’s Dickinson, a fallen Guards Captain, in line for preferment. In fact this officer saw ‘Ross’ at Versailles, tricks a wary butler at Cliveden with a call and blackmails Ross. John Hopkins rasps caddishness to Fiennes whose wary surrender introduces Ross’s accidie. He’s defeated in his desire to belong: other airmen have just referred to him as ‘one of us’ having him sing ‘Tipperary’, another nod to Ross’s Irish identity.


Fiennes’ charisma might have unfairly seemed in deep-freeze, though he’s been steadily working. This production proves his literally magnetic presence – actors turn around him as the centripetal vortex of each scene – and his complete inhabiting of the role. It helps that Joan Hughes’ costumes even for Lawrence in mufti are so spot-on, but Fiennes both hunches to Lawrence’s diminutive frame and then expands to fill the swept Festival stage with sudden leaps. The department of silly salutes he can never get right is just one of Fiennes’ quiddities. His voice, penetratingly low with a soft almost Irish lilt – Lawrence later adopted the brogue of his Anglo-Irish ascendency roots – can bark on occasion, turn to ferocity with a fit of demonic laughter as the composite GOC type General Barrington lays into him for allowing atrocities – at Deraa.


Rattigan teases out the sleights bringing Lawrence to trick Sheik Auda Abu Tayi to help spark revolt – played to the hilt by Peter Polycarpu, rich in comedic wiliness but hinting treacherous, admiring dignity. There’s sensitivity in Lawrence’s relations with two bodyguards whose fate harrows out his soul. But again the richest moments are those of near farce.


Only Rattigan could insert a Coward telephone ringing at a desert staging post. Fiennes’ interactions with the man who outwits him – General Allenby, scholar, diplomat, ruthless soldier – spins more insubordinate comedy, two scenes leavening the drama’s centre. Paul Freeman’s barking staccato shrouds a psychologist who penetrates all of Lawrence he needs. Freeman deploys Allenby’s skewering short-breathed lines and turns them into an instrument to goad Lawrence especially when he nearly breaks, knowing too when not to.


In Lawrence‘s capture by Michael Feast’s camp Turkish governor of Deraa Rattigan necessarily follows Lawrence’s account: a blue-eyed fair Circassian stripped was to be ‘shown everything’. Rattigan’s rationale is as persuasive as that allows: the Machiavel governor knows it’s Lawrence, reveals to him his own nature, lets him go, to ensure the revolt’s failure. But there’s Machiavel Allenby too. Feast is excellent in so stage-villain a turn. Rattigan too references atrocities against women and children by retreating Turks to rationalize what Lawrence and his men later do to the Deraa garrison.


Back in Uxbridge, interactions with airmen Ross so desperately wishes to maintain, unravels. Brendan Hooper’s Flight Sergeant is baffled at the RAF’s terror of Ross with the winning farce of RAF officers reprising Ross’s ‘Archbishop of Canterbury –‘ the panicky downing of whiskies clinks high farce against Ross’s fate. Again the unwitting gentleness of his fellows is touchingly comic.


Ross is flawed only in that Lawrence, Ross, Shaw – Lawrence’s last name introduced here, a hommage to his adoption by the Shaws – let Rattigan down. But this is exceptionally fine drama, unique for mining that vein of British amateur genius in comic – and epic – conflict with military authority. Noble directs authoritatively himself here. Pace couldn’t be bettered, and Rattigan finally masters epic. His next major play Heart to Heart was for television. Taking in something of Ross’s political sweep, it needs reviving as theatre. An absorbing corrective, this production’s another firm ratchet up in Rattigan’s revival – and of Joseph Fiennes, whose energy and command invoke not just Lawrence but himself. What he does next will be of theatrical moment.