“The English vice is that we don’t own up to our emotions…we think they demean us”
Rattigan’s Nijinsky is something of a companion piece to the production of The Deep Blue Sea with which this is playing in rep at the Chichester Festival Theatre and sharing much of its cast. Looking to make their own unique tribute in the centenary year of Rattigan’s death, new pieces have been commissioned to play alongside his plays and here, Nicholas Wright has embroidered a story around the mystery of Rattigan’s 1974 unproduced and unpublished screenplay about ballet dancer Nijinsky and his passionate affair with Ballets Russes impresario Diaghilev.
Having been able to examine images of the original work, Wright has incorporated scenes into his own play, so we get to see Rattigan’s version of the tumultuous love affair between the older Diaghilev and his protégé, the man often cited as one of the greatest dancers ever, and the strain it was placed under due to Nijinsky’s mental fragility, something exacerbated (or even caused by?) falling into marriage with a woman. These scenes are interspersed with a modern-day (1974) narrative with an ailing Rattigan sequestered in his suite at Claridges and having to deal with Nijinsky’s widow, Romola, who is virulently objecting to his version of the events of her earlier life.
Underlying everything is Rattigan’s private homosexuality – something further pointed up by the pairing with the coded desire of The Deep Blue Sea – and the dramatic drive of the contemporary strand, such as it exists, is around Romola’s threats to blackmail Rattigan into silence, holding the knowledge of his sexuality over him whilst he struggles with the idea of coming out and thus being known, button-holed, as a gay writer. Malcolm Sinclair captures something of this torment, self-medicating with both potions and J+B, reduced to a stammering boy by the inquisitive nature of his redoubtable mother and looking on with longing as the Nijinsky scenes play out around him.
The play didn’t quite work for me though, unable to really delve into issues in either strand. Nijinsky remained a very elusive character, we see how his choreographic gift brought to him to life, but his marriage and descent into insanity are both very quick and rather unexplained. Likewise, we don’t really get to explore Rattigan, his interactions are quite limited from within his hotel room and only in flashes do we see something of the man behind the image: the heartbreaking phone call to the BBC, the growing flirtation with the gruff bellboy. Too much of the dialogue feels stilted and artificial, like what one would expect Rattigan to say as a character in one of his own plays, when something more visceral is needed (and dramatic license invoked if necessary).
Philip Franks’ production has a strong cast: Jonathan Hyde makes for a brilliantly exuberant and charismatic Diaghilev, present in both time zones and the figure Rattigan longs to be, something I wish had been played up more; Joseph Drake did well at portraying the elusive and enigmatic Nijinsky if not quite getting the dancer’s grace, and was great fun as the twinkle-eyed flirty bellhop; Faye Castelow and Susan Tracy struggled a little with the younger and older versions of Romola, characterised so unsympathetically. A lithe ensemble added intermittent energy and interest, but ultimately it all felt a little inconsequential.
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3 (also covers The Deep Blue Sea)
Booking until 3rd September (in rep)
Note: the best bit about the day was the piece of coffee cake I had in the interval bought at a lovely little sandwich shop just the other side of the underpass from the theatre. Oh, and the delightful Rosemary, who single-handedly transformed my opinions about the ushers at Chichester.