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Rattigan's Nijinsky

Nicholas Wright, based on a screenplay by Terence Rattigan
A Chichester Festival Theatre Production
Chichester Festival Theatre
(2011)

Rattigan's Nijinsky production photo

Rattigan’s screenplay, commissioned by the BBC and completed in 1974, was never aired, seemingly due to Nijinsky’s widow, Romola, refusing, and threatening blackmail, to agree to her husband being portrayed as a homosexual, so, cross-cast with The Deep Blue Sea and with the same creative team, it is billed as one of ‘Two World Premieres‘.

Wright has fused Rattigan’s play with an imagined meeting between a terminally ill Rattigan and the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, the man responsible for the Ballets Russes, but more than a producer Diaghilev was an artist who knew how to combine multiple talents to brilliant effect. Beginning in a suite in Claridges Hotel before moving to ‘other places’ such as ballet school and an ocean-going liner, Mike Britton makes use of the opportunity to indulge in more exotic locations and his sets reflect the opulence of the venues in sharp contrast to the fifties' London boarding house in The Deep Blue Sea. The action flits backward and forwards, often confusingly, and with many of the cast doubling, or trebling, in their parts, so, put together with the Russian habit of never using the same name twice, concentration is needed to work out the details, but nevertheless Philip Franks production is stylish and engrossing as the egos and super-egos are flaunted, most particularly by Jonathan Hyde’s flamboyant Diaghilev and Joseph Drake’s neurotic Nijinsky, convinced to obsessiveness that his talent comes directly from God.

The young heiress Romola is Faye Castelow. Pert, pretty and determined she wheedles her way into ballet class to be near her idol, and then on board ship where she finally catches his attention and they marry, seemingly happily. Well, she sticks by him to the end anyway, right up to her old age (now played by Susan Tracy) after his death when she insists on trying to protect his reputation (although his affair with Diaghilev was never concealed) as well as insisting on the best champagne.

Tracy also splendidly takes the part of Rattigan’s very correct English middle class mother who has no idea of his homosexuality, or of ballet for that matter. After asking “Are you in love with Maggie?” she complains about Nijinsky’s portrayal of Petrouchka: “He lollopped about like a puppet”.

Nijinsky’s triumphs are briefly touched on, and disasters are recounted too when his futuristic and animalistic choreography scandalised an outraged public in such ballets as Rite of Spring and L’Après Midi d’un faune.

Discussing with Cedric, a producer from the BBC (Hyde again), the possibility of broadcasting his controversial play Rattigan argues, “It reflects badly on the good name of the BBC.”

“We haven’t got a good name” counters Cedric, while musing on the possibility of casting Felicity Kendall in the part of Romola.

“I have never written a great play,” muses Malcolm Sinclair as a dignified but slightly bitter Rattigan, “but I’ve never lied - always told the truth”. Could this have been the great play that he believed had eluded him, and would ‘the truth’ be too painful to have shown to the world? It could well be a good time to re-instate the broadcast and let the public judge for themselves.

In repertory until 3rd September 2011

Reviewer: Sheila Connor