“That damned woman”
Cause Célèbre is perhaps one of the most eagerly awaited events of the Terence Rattigan centenary celebrations, being directed by Thea Sharrock who helmed the multi-Olivier-winning After the Dance at the National Theatre last year. She brings this play, the last to be written by Rattigan in 1976 before his death the next year, to the Old Vic featuring the return to the stage of Anne-Marie Duff, alongside Niamh Cusack and a large supporting cast. This was a preview performance and I attended as part of the What’s on Stage group outing.
The play is based on the 1930s real-life story of Alma Rattenbury, a woman nearly 40 accused and put on trial for murdering her elderly husband along with her 18-year old lover. Society was scandalised and enthralled by the trial, not necessarily because of the crime but because of the moral profligacy that was perceived in Alma taking such a young lover, and one who was her servant to boot, and it is the attitudes of society that Rattigan focuses on. He introduces the fictionalised character of Edith Davenport into the narrative, a woman of very traditional values who is the forewoman of the jury hearing Alma’s case, yet who is struggling with her own issues as she is divorcing her feckless husband and dealing her son who has inherited his father’s taste for debauchery (as she sees it), a crucial point being that he is the same age as Alma’s lover, something which clouds her judgement from the start.
My over-riding emotion about Cause Célèbre, unlike that of my companions it must be said, was one of ambivalence. It is all very well put together but there was something missing for me which meant I never really got involved with proceedings. Partly this was to do with the structure of the play which flits between past and present, stunting the emotional development of the work. The courtroom scenes, with its flashbacks to the events of the fateful night, are smoothly done but are hardly anything new and the focus on the lawyers and their backroom chat feels a strange choice as we barely know these characters.
Given the focus of the story seems to be the juxtaposition of the two women at its heart, it just seems the play would benefit from a stronger examination of their domestic situations and a deeper examination of why they are the women they are. Not enough time is spent on the relationships in their lives, indeed we hardly get a real sense of Alma’s husband at all, and so it ends up being a rather run-of-the-mill courtroom standard, only elevating above that with the devastating finale.
Niamh Cusack is outstanding as the tightly-buttoned Edith, unable to deviate from her strict moral code no matter the cost and it is her dilemmas that form the beating heart of the show. Anne-Marie Duff’s Alma is an altogether more flighty and enigmatic individual of whom one is never too sure, a victim of society’s prejudice to be sure but beyond that it is hard to tell as her relationships with Timothy Carlton’s staid husband and Tommy McDonnell’s lover are rather underdeveloped, though they all do well with what they have.
Elsewhere I really enjoyed Lucy Robinson’s haughty society mistress Stella (her Lady Macbeth opposite Gary Webster in a mobster-inspired production at the Bolton Octagon was one of those moments that made me fall in love with theatre as a teenager), Jenny Galloway’s under-used companion and Nicholas Jones’ maverick barrister. Indeed, there were no real weak links in terms of the acting, just limited opportunities for characters to flourish and therefore never really giving the sense of an ensemble of strong characters around the leads that I’ve come to associate with Rattigan’s work.
Hildegard Bechtler’s rather minimalist design makes the most of opening up the huge stage of the Old Vic to great effect, but it is Bruno Poet’s lighting that is the real star of the show, working absolute wonders in creating the distinct locations of the plays but more importantly, allows for the highly effective cross-fading of scenes which surmounts its radio roots with a minimum of fuss. The gorgeous simplicity of much of the imagery thus created is just beautiful to look at. There’s also a rather innovative use of the space, calling to mind The White Guard for some reason, which I won’t give away here but I’d recommend avoiding sitting in the front few rows…
I’m still relatively new to Rattigan’s work but I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed in Cause Célèbre. Even without comparing it to After the Dance and Flare Path, there’s a lack of dramatic impetus here and not enough of Rattigan’s customary incisive character studies. Reading the programme notes about the difficult genesis of this play with Rattigan suffering badly from terminal cancer and ricocheting between collaborators, it is tempting to point to this as a reason why, despite the best efforts of Sharrock and the cast and creatives, this is not really representative of Rattigan at his best.