Cause Célèbre, The Old Vic, London, March 2011Posted on 30 March 2011
A young man kills his lover’s husband in a fit of jealousy. Should he hang? This is 1935 when the death penalty was mandatory for a murder conviction of this sort but the public was unduly sympathetic because the wife, Alma had carried on with him under her husband’s roof, and presumably wanted her husband, Francis Rattenbury out of the way. He was not an altogether nice man — after leaving his first wife he had the heat and lights turned off in their home, and flaunted his affair with his future second wife, the 27-year old Alma Pakenham.
The husband’s nasty streak is, however, not the point in this Rattigan play, which deals with the illicit relationship between Alma and her chauffeur, along with the court case, a cause célèbre in 1935. This frames everything towards the end, allowing us to see what really happened. Times have changed, of course, but the public’s prurient interest in personal scandal is timeless, and well expressed in this, Rattigan’s last play.
Anne-Marie Duff as Alma Rattenbury was utterly convincing as a charmingly batty woman who lived life to the full. She probably wasn’t very bright, saying in court that she had no sex with her husband because, “the flesh was willing but the spirit was weak”, but then her lover was none too bright either, thinking he could get off by claiming to be on cocaine. The brightest person in the play is probably O’Connor the barrister, brilliantly played by Nicholas Jones. Add to that Niamh Cusack as Edith Davenport, portraying a fiercely judgemental woman who became the leader of the jury, and Lucy Robinson as her friend Stella Morrison, who takes a large, ultimately losing bet on the outcome, and here was the germ of a superb cast. Ms. Robinson’s cut glass accent was absolutely of the time, and Niamh Cusack was convincingly earnest in her possessive relationship with her son, her strict avoidance of her estranged husband, and her jury role as a key player in the verdict. These wonderful actors allowed Anne-Marie Duff to carry off the role of the adorable and infuriating Alma with tremendous spirit.
At the time of these events, Alma was 39 and her lover was 18, though in this production he looked older than that. The large age difference was one of the things that shocked the public, who saw her as the dominant partner. But as Rattigan’s Alma points out to the judge, it’s the younger person who has control in this situation. Thirty-nine can be a desperate age for some women, and had the age difference been the other way, the home secretary might not have intervened after the sentence. As it was the young chauffeur lived “a quiet life” until he died in 2000, aged 83.
The director, Thea Sharrock was also responsible for the National Theatre’s excellent revival of Rattigan’s After the Dance last year, and here again we have a fine production with designs by Hildegard Bechtler. I loved the lighting by Bruno Poet, which at times brought various characters from darkness to light, and vice versa — this was particularly good during the court scenes because the Old Vic is a cavernous theatre with a huge stage, and the lighting helped to create a useful intimacy.
The play runs until June 11 — for more information, click here for more details on the Old Vic’s website.