A year late but worth the wait. Last year’s centenary of Terence Rattigan’s birth brought two excellent revivals of lesser-known works, Flare Path and Cause Célèbre, to London. But the playwright’s personal story remains a subject of uncertainty and guesswork. Giles Cole’s little gem of a play, The Art of Concealment, brings the dramatist’s secret history to life.
Rattigan complained that to outsiders his success seemed quite effortless. In fact, his whole career was a fluke. After dropping out of Oxford without a degree, the young wannabe was given an ultimatum by his boorish, womanising father: succeed as a playwright or take a job in the Foreign Office. Rattigan failed. Every play he sent out came boomeranging back by return of post. In despair, and without telling her son, old Ma Rattigan parcelled up an early effort, Joie de Vivre, and posted it off to a producer, who liked everything about it except the title. Rechristened French Without Tears, it ran for 1,000 performances in the West End. Rattigan was launched. But writing was a constant strain. He had to plunder his complex emotional life for material while carefully concealing his sexuality from the public.
In 1956 disaster overwhelmed him when John Osborne, armed with an ironing board, terminated his career almost overnight. His expertly crafted bourgeois tragedies suddenly seemed out of date. Under pressure from an ambitious director, he turned his breakthrough play into a song-’n’-dance show. French Without Tears, The Musical closed after four days. Rattigan retreated to his study and spent endless afternoons poring over press cuttings of former triumphs while swigging gallons of neat whisky.
Cole’s script uses the blunt device of two narrators, the older and the younger Rattigan, but this deliberately naive gesture seems appropriate to a play that strips the dramatist’s craft down to its bare components.
Alistair Findlay plays the ageing Rattigan as a stoical sybarite cheerfully sloshing back treble Scotches despite his failing health. Judy Buxton gives a rigorous account of Rattigan’s crisp, no-nonsense mother who went to her grave believing that her bachelor son was married to his career. And Graham Pountney provides terrific entertainment as Rattigan senior, a hilariously insensitive sports nut, whose diplomatic career ended after a hushed-up affair with an unmarried princess, and who was desperate for his son to gain the success, and the knighthood, that had eluded him.
Pountney also doubles as a leading member of Rattigan’s homo-coterie of thesps, cadgers and boyfriends who thronged his country house helping themselves to free vodka and angling for jobs and sexual favours. This glimpse of a forgotten beau monde is the play’s best asset. In the second act, when Rattigan loses his looks and slithers into a sea of booze, the dramatic momentum stalls a little. But overall the show is strong enough for a lap of honour around the provinces.
A far more promising candidate for a bio-drama is Julian Assange. Contradictions and complications abound in the celebrity cyber-terrorist. He’s a Messianic super-geek, a digital Spartacus, an insomniac polymath, an unwashed sex athlete, a dictatorial liberal, a power-nut dedicated to overthrowing power-nuts, an exploiter of underlings posing as a saint, and a truth-seeker devoted to deflecting truths about himself.
Ron Elisha, a Melbourne GP, tackles the silver-maned maverick in Man in the Middle but he stubbornly refuses to meet his subject head-on. Instead he goes ambling up and down the corridors of power indulging in sketch-show routines about irrelevant celebrities. A limp scene between David Cameron and Mark Zuckerberg goes on for ages. We flit to Washington where a track-suited Barack Obama is discovered puffing a sneaky cigarette on the White Lawn. What for? Search me. Elisha spends ages trying to find signs of life in Geoffrey Robertson, Assange’s colourless barrister. The only cameo that succeeds is Robertson’s wife, Kathy Lette, brilliantly portrayed by Amy Marston as a mincing, wise-cracking, flirtatious little sex-kitten. Excellent stuff. But wholly off-piste.
The show boasts some decent one-liners. ‘Predictably corrupt government,’ says a smirking Russian oligarch, ‘is the same as transparent government.’ But we hear virtually nothing about Assange’s biggest coup and his biggest cock-up. To maximise publicity for WikiLeaks he formed a triple alliance with the Guardian, Stern magazine and the New York Times. And having established this invincible media coalition he brought the whole thing crashing to the ground in a firestorm of mutual recrimination and name-calling. Assange is such a weird and gripping character that the first dramatist to do him justice on stage will make an absolute mint. For now, the search continues.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 21, 2012