Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

THE REVIVAL OF RATTIGAN; When Sienna Miller Steps out on Stage in a New West End Production of Flare Path This Week, She Signals a Year of Celebrations and the Rehabilitation of One of the 20th Century's Greatest Playwrights

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

THE REVIVAL OF RATTIGAN; When Sienna Miller Steps out on Stage in a New West End Production of Flare Path This Week, She Signals a Year of Celebrations and the Rehabilitation of One of the 20th Century's Greatest Playwrights

Article excerpt

Byline: Henry Hitchings

THIS year marks the centenary of the birth of Terence Rattigan, a landmark prompting both commemoration and reassessment of this once neglected playwright.

A revival of his wartime drama, Flare Path, opens on Thursday at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, directed by Trevor Nunn, with Sienna Miller and Sheridan Smith. Written while he was serving in the RAF, this play is not well-known, yet it originally ran in the West End for 679 performances.

It was one of a string of successes for Rattigan that began in 1936 with the breezy comedy French Without Tears. For the two decades that followed, his work enjoyed wild popularity. His instinct for entertainment was sharp. He grew rich, and relished doing so. But by the late Fifties, his urbane manner and methods had begun to look hidebound.

Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, both premiering in the mid-Fifties, revolutionised the idiom of British theatre, and to a rising generation itching for experiment, Rattigan's "well-made" drama suddenly felt archaic. The privileged backgrounds of his characters also counted against him.

Rattigan contributed to the downgrading of his own reputation. In the preface to the second volume of his Collected Plays (1953), he presented himself as a slavish populist. Apparently doubtful that theatre was a medium for communicating complex ideas, he suggested that there should be plenty of plays suitable for an archetypal, conservative "Aunt Edna". This ill-considered invention was a gift to his detractors. From the Sixties to the Eighties, he was treated as little more than a purveyor of slick melodrama. Yet now he is back in vogue, increasingly regarded as one of Britain's two or three greatest 20th-century playwrights, revered for his moving studies of unfulfilled characters and the mechanics of humiliation.

Film-maker Karel Reisz was instrumental in renovating the playwright's image, with his 1993 Almeida production of The Deep Blue Sea, a portrait of a one-sided love affair. Reisz stripped away the Fifties detail and identified the work as above all a drama of sexual obsession.

This play shows Rattigan at his most powerful, eloquent about frustration and inner anguish. His writing tends to feature love triangles, and the inequality of relationships is a favourite subject.

Awkwardness and repression are normal; when there are bursts of joviality, they are a means of compensating for angst.

A distinct Rattigan "type" is the tightlipped patrician whose emotional life is a desert. The best example among his female characters is Joan Scott-Fowler in After the Dance, so beautifully played by Nancy Carroll in Thea Sharrock's fine revival last year. But it is his men who seem least adept at articulating their feelings. …

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