Terence Rattigan
Chichester Festival Theatre
Chichester Festival Theatre

Joseph Fiennes as Lawrence and Eben Figueiredo as Rashid Credit: Johan Persson
Paul Freeman as General Allenby Credit: Johan Persson

I knew very little about the man known as Lawrence of Arabia beyond the fact that he was a hero of WWI who worked behind enemy lines in the desert, finally dying in a motor cycle accident in 1935, but then did anyone truly know him?

It seems he was a bit of a mystery even to himself. At one point in the play, he is warned of the dangers of self pity and responds with “self knowledge is worse’’.

Rattigan begins his story towards the end at a Royal Airforce Depot near London in 1922 where "self knowledge" has brought remorse and guilt. Lawrence is trying to escape his past by assuming the name Ross and hoping to avoid celebrity status.

He wants to be accepted as just another ordinary man, but the contradictory nature of his character gets him into constant trouble. The threat of exposure by a blackmailer unnerves him to such an extent that his malaria causes him to shake uncontrollably and the following trance transports him, and us, to his time in the desert.

In a mixture of a history lesson and an exciting adventure story, the 1922 RAF dormitory fades away to be replaced by imposing engraved columns and parched earth floor, with lighting giving the impression of huge tents. The soft, rosy hue of a Moorish environment is equally enhanced by Mia Soteriou’s music.

Here is a totally different man to the one we have just seen. It is a fascinating account of his exploits, yet basically it’s an attempt to discover the man himself and what shaped the character of this archeologist and historian with a taste for danger.

Joseph Fiennes, hardly off-stage for a moment, takes in every aspect of this elusive character from admiring himself in a mirror as he parades in his silken Arab robes, to the cool and calculating strategist working out how best to defeat the Turks and eventually the broken and defeated spirit, guilt-ridden by what he perceives as his failure.

The thrust stage, with audience so close around, gives an intimacy which, to my mind, doesn’t sit well with the desert setting but allows a better connection with the man and his emotional state, perhaps closer than is comfortable at the sight of his broken, bloodied body after the beatings and rape ordered by Michael Feast’s Turkish Military Governor.

The excellent cast also includes Peter Polycarpou as an almost avuncular Sheik Auda Abu Tayi, Nicholas Prasad as the Arab Hamed, changing from derisive distrust to a loyalty approaching worship and Paul Freeman as General Allenby.

At the end, we are no closer to understanding the man, but the play is almost compulsory viewing not only for the historical content but for its depiction of the casual, indifferent brutality inherent in war, the ingrained insulting racism of otherwise decent men, the hypocrisy of assisting The Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire while aware that their territory was already allocated and it’s not above poking fun at the triteness and banality of the military and the duplicity of their leaders.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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