In 1973, Terence Rattigan was commissioned by the BBC to write a TV script about Vaslav Nijinsky. In Michael Darlow’s summary, the script “traced Nijinsky’s life from his childhood examination for a place in the Imperial Ballet on to his stardom through into irrevocable madness” (Darlow, Rattigan: The Man and his Work, p.444), and focused in large part upon the dancer’s relationship with his mentor/lover Diaghilev. As such, the play directly confronted an “issue” which had been suppressed - for some, problematically so - within Rattigan’s drama up to this point: homosexuality. But, despite a positive response from BBC producers, and his own apparent pride in the project, Rattigan finally decided to withdraw the completed script, and his Nijinsky was never produced.
Nicholas Wright’s new play, Rattigan’s Nijinsky, just opened at the Chichester Festival Theatre and running in rep with the (cross-cast) The Deep Blue Sea, explores the reasons for Rattigan’s decision. It points the finger of blame squarely at Nijinsky’s widow, Romola, who vociferously objected to the portrayal of herself and her husband in the script and threatened Rattigan with legal action if the production went ahead. But the scope of Wright’s play is broader than this. He also includes scenes from Rattigan’s script, which feature Nijinsky, Diaghilev and the young Romola. These moments are interwoven with scenes set in Rattigan’s hotel suite where the ageing, ailing writer receives visits from a BBC producer, the older Romola, and others, while reflecting upon his current reputation and the direction of his life and work.
It’s an intriguing and ambitious mixture of elements, to be sure, and one that generates some effective moments in Philip Franks’s busy production. Malcolm Sinclair’s Rattigan nicely suggests the anger and resentment hiding under the polished façade, and while the play’s structure forces the actor to spend a bit too much time looking on interestedly as scenes from his script come to life around him, the performance becomes more involving as the production progresses: a pivotal late phone-call scene, in particular, is beautifully underplayed.
And yet, as often with the fact-based dramas that are currently so fashionable, there’s a contrived and rather hollow quality to Rattigan’s Nijinsky which prevented complete involvement, for me. Almost every illuminating moment seems undercut by a clunky, obvious touch, and having set up some intriguing parallels - between Rattigan’s reticence about revealing his sexuality versus Diaghilev’s openness, for example - the play is content to fall back on clichés. English reserve versus showy Slavic emotionalism is the order of the day here, and Jonathan Hyde's sometimes over-ripe performance as Diaghilev telegraphs the contrast. (Hyde does have some stylish, witty moments, though.) And Wright’s writing too often operates on a policy of diminishment. In particular, he demonises the older Romola (a thickly-accented Susan Tracy) so thoroughly that I felt a perverse inclination to sympathise with her. (She’s presented in her one scene as a homophobe, a snob, and a woman who's quite prepared to resort to blackmail in order to get her way - we’re certainly encouraged to share Diaghilev’s view of her as “a monster.”)
And with the action flitting between locations (London, St. Petersburg, Paris, New York), it’s not surprising that some key elements feel frustatingly sketchy and undeveloped here, and essential motivation fudged. Joseph Drake’s Nijinsky seems to fall for the young Romola (Faye Castelow, non-accented) simply because she dresses in a suit and dances a mean tango, while his descent into madness (cue the straight-jacket) feels like the fastest in history. Nor do the expressionist flourishes and stylised dance scenes that Wright and Franks have incorporated truly take flight. And there’s a horrible, snide little scene between Rattigan and his mother (played by Tracy again) in which the latter reveals herself as a hopeless philistine who’s entirely oblivious to the reality of her son’s sexuality. (Her daffy, genteelly "English" delusion about her son is presented as the obverse of Romola’s "monstrous" delusion about her husband.)
The most intriguing part of the drama is perhaps Rattigan’s conflict about identifying himself as a gay author, and Wright has written some neat and memorable speeches in which Rattigan talks about his abhorrence of being pigeonholed and the undercurrent of “queerness” that he believes to be present, subtexturally, in all of his work. The words are eloquent and yet, like other such moments here, they have a slightly bogus ring to them, sounding more like the musings of a contemporary literary critic than the plausible reflections of the playwright himself.
The Rattigan/Romola scene, in which the latter argues that “if you choose to depict people who existed in life then it is your duty to be accurate," sets up some interesting issues about the ethical implications of appropriating the lives of others in drama - implications that Wright doesn't really address. Perhaps that's because Romola's warning about the difficulty of representing a genius such as Nijinsky seems spot-on: the scenes from Rattigan's play that are incorporated here don't really make a case for it as a Rattigan masterpiece along the lines of The Deep Blue Sea. (It looks more like a Cause Célèbre-ish mess.) The pairing of Wright's play with The Deep Blue Sea is revealing in one way, though: it gives the lie to the notion that historical figures necessarily make for more compelling dramatic subjects than characters created from an author's imagination. The people in Rattigan’s Nijinsky all existed - and perhaps they did and said all of the things that Wright gives them to do and say in this play. But do we believe in them as deeply as we believe in Hester, and Freddie, and Sir William in The Deep Blue Sea? The answer, for this viewer at least, is a definite “No.”
The production runs for 2 hours 30 minutes and is playing in rep with The Deep Blue Sea until 3rd September. Further information here.