Rattigan’s Nijinsky, Chichester Festival Theatre, August 2011Posted on 3 August 2011
This is not just a play for ballet fans or anyone who has heard of Diaghilev or Nijinsky, it’s also for Rattigan fans, as Terence Rattigan himself appears on stage, brilliantly played by Malcolm Sinclair. He interacts with the characters in his own drama, particularly Diaghilev, and at the end of Part I we hear the following dialogue between them. Diaghilev: Where are we now? Rattigan: Thursday, May 29th, 1913, the first night of The Rite of Spring.
This famous premiere gave the Paris audience two creations that many found hard to take: Nijinsky’s revolutionary choreography, and Stravinsky’s extraordinary score. The theatre was in an uproar and police had to be called to keep some sort of order, while Nijinsky was backstage shouting out counts to dancers who could barely hear the orchestra for all the noise. It remains the most riotous premiere in all of ballet.
We know of course who Stravinsky was, Diaghilev too, but who exactly was Nijinsky? This play shows him as a boy applying to the Czar’s Imperial Ballet School. He’s small and was almost rejected out of hand, but his jumps were amazing, and he was the first person to do an entrechat dix. Not a six — “Any carthorse can do a six“, says Diaghilev — but a dix (a jump where the feet are interchanged in the air, with beats, five times). But technical virtuosity aside, Nijinsky was a creative genius whose first ballet, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune to Debussy’s music of the same name was a sensation of sensuality.
In this brilliant new play by Nicholas Wright, based on a screenplay by Rattigan, we see some of the original steps for Faun, along with Rite of Spring and Petrushka. And there’s music too: snatches of these ballets and Firebird. It’s all immensely watchable.
Nijinsky had an extraordinary instinct for dance. He was the first male dancer to take a solo bow, and he talks excitedly about how a woman threw a diamond tiara to him, and he tossed it back. So what went wrong? Rattigan endeavours to tell us. He talks to his mother who recalls seeing Nijinsky in Petrushka, “He lollopped … like a puppet”. “He is a puppet”. But Mrs. Rattigan is non-plussed, and when her son tells her Nijinsky was sacked, her response “Russians are so emotional”, shows she doesn’t really get it, and she wonders why her son has never found the right woman to marry.
This is the key. It’s why Rattigan refused to allow the BBC to put on the play they’d commissioned. He received a visit from Nijinsky’s widow, Romola who knew perfectly well that her husband was bisexual, but threatened Rattigan that if he brought to light the relationship between Nijinsky and Diaghilev then she would out him as “a pervert and a man of bestial proclivities”. He couldn’t bear to be recognised as homosexual because it would overshadow his work, so he backed off. In this play we see how Nijinsky was manipulated, not least by Romola herself. She schemes to make him her husband, and later takes him to see the psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who diagnoses schizophrenia, a term he coined himself.
There is also underhand scheming by others, including Diaghilev, brilliantly portrayed by Jonathan Hyde, who also played Rattigan’s BBC producer Cedric Messina. In body, Hyde looked more like the real life Massine than Diaghilev, but that is a minor point — his characterisation was excellent, and we are left wondering whether Diaghilev really wanted to rid himself of Nijinsky. Joseph Drake was wonderful as this extraordinary almost other-worldly dancer who believed it was God who helped him perform. Drake also played Donald the young hotel worker who fancies Rattigan. He was immensely likeable in both roles, a contrast to Faye Castelow was eminently dislikeable as his wife, the young Romola, with Susan Tracy equally dislikeable as the widow, as well as doubling up as Rattigan’s charmingly superficial mother. Lovely portrayal of the choreography by Emma Harris and Ellie Robertson.
This is not just worth seeing — it’s a must see for anyone with the slightest interest in ballet, and the creative team led by director Philip Franks and designer Mike Britton have done a wonderful job.
Performances continue until September 3 — for details click here.