Tuesday, May 22, 2012

(No.199) Shaw Festival: Rattigan, Coward & GBS

"The Shaw Festival: "Look ma, I'm not Terence Rattigan"

by Alastair Rickard

By the mid-1950s Terence Rattigan (born in 1911) had been England's most popular playwright for the best part of two decades. Less well known here and in the U.S., for North Americans his best known work was 1954's "Separate Tables", actually two one act plays, made into a movie in 1958 for which David Niven won the Best Actor Academy Award and Rattigan was nominated for his screenplay.

I can think of no more dramatic example of a popular modern playwright who went into steep decline -- and a mean-spirited one -- with critics, a group notoriously given to being trendy and often suspicious of success with a wide public audience,  than did Terence Rattigan. This descent from favour was precipitated by the arrival on the London stage in 1956 of John Osborne's play "Look back in Anger", the harbinger of the new English 'kitchen sink dramas' from the pens of Britain's new generation of  'angry young men'.

On several occasions Rattigan stoked the fires of his own decline with critics. When asked by a journalist what he thought of "Look Back In Anger", Rattigan replied in these words ( the actual wording depending on whether one trolls Google rather than the Rattigan biography by Geoffrey Wansell):  Osborne was saying "Look, ma, I'm not Terence Rattigan."

In his 1995 biography Wansell summed up Rattigan's sharp decline with critics and more gradually with producers and audiences: he "was suddenly cast aside by the British theatre with almost unimaginable brutality. First prized for his humanity and craftsmanship ... he was then abruptly and summarily dismissed as dated and irrelevant, period and precious, the creator of plays that only middle-aged maiden aunts could possibly like or admire. It was a monstrous judgment on his delicate, gentle talent, but the stigma lasted for thirty years."

Notwithstanding the sudden rise of the kitchen sink school of English drama Rattigan continued to write for the stage, screen and television. However he died in 1977 and did not live to see the very gradual revival of his reputation and of the performance of his work.

In 1995 my wife Pat and I were at one milepost along that long road when we attended at the Apollo Theatre in London's West End a new production of Rattigan's 1973 play "In Praise of Love" with Peter Bowles in the lead. The evening we were there the theatre was perhaps half full. Another example, quite recent, is the movie directed by Terence Davies and currently in release in Canada based on Rattigan's 1952 play "The Deep Blue Sea".

The Shaw Festival's 2012 season contributes to the Terence Rattigan revival. The Shaw program of  11 plays includes Rattigan's first real stage suceess: "French Without Tears", a very successful comedy that ran on the London stage for more than 1,000 performances beginning in 1936.

The play takes place in France in the household of a French tutor and his daughter whose business it is to help young Englishmen destined for careers in the Foreign Office or the military to learn French. The Shaw's production directed by Kate Lynch is performed by a very professional cast who give highly competent performances.

For me the most interesting part of the play, watching it today, is to think about those aspects of English society in the 1930s that helped make the play so successful for so long with audiences when in 2012 the humour seems minor. Perhaps one factor is that in 2012, nearly 80 years on, the titillations of the comedy's  plot are so much less effective as humour.

In recent years Jackie Maxwell, the artistic director of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario, has consistently offered more plays which appeal to a range of tastes and interests more effectively than has the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. This year's program at the Shaw Festival is, in comparison with Stratford's, another illustration.

During our recent visit to the Shaw Festival we attended three plays all written within a 30 year period of the 20th century by two Englishmen and an Irishman: Rattigan's "French Without Tears", Noel Coward's "Present Laughter" and George Bernard Shaw's "Misalliance".

All three are worth seeing, with several noteworthy performances including those of Steven Sutcliffe who seems to channel Noel Coward in the role of "Present Laughter's" Garry Essendine, a part originally played by Coward; also the marvellous Peter Krantz as Lord Summerhays in Shaw's "Misalliance".

For information about and tickets to The Shaw Festival plays, go to: www.shawfest.com


email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

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