Wednesday, April 27, 2011

'In Praise of Love' by Terence Rattigan

27 April 2011

My limited knowledge of the playwright Terence Rattigan stretches to those stiff upper lip drawing-room dramas of the 1940s ‘The Winslow Boy’ and ‘The Browning Version’ and the fact that Rattigan’s dramatic style was swiftly swept away by ‘Look Back in Anger’ and the angry young men of the late 1950s. So it was a pleasant surprise to discover his excellent late play ‘In Praise of Love’ at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton last week. Celebrating the centenary of Rattigan’s birth, this ‘Made in Northampton’ production, directed by Richard Beecham, showed me a different Rattigan in a different time. ‘In Praise of Love’ was written and set in 1973 (four years before Rattigan’s death) and deals with a cantankerous left-wing literary critic and the terminal illness of his Estonian wife. The play is a four-hander, with the couple joined by their successful American novelist friend and their grown-up son, who has outraged his father by campaigning on behalf of the Liberal Party (“a vote-splitting organisation carefully designed to keep the establishment in power”!). The Northampton production was perfectly cast with Jay Villiers, Geraldine Alexander, Sean Power and Gethin Anthony all excellent. I loved the set – a forest of bookshelves, described by Michael Billington in The Guardian as “the most convincing book-lined flat I’ve seen on the British stage” – which gave the play a timeless quality. It must have been tempting to dress the stage in 1970s detail but it was much more effective to leave period reminders to the occasional appearance of a leather jacket or a 1970s television. ‘In Praise of Love’ deals with the tension between being open with the people you love and concealing difficult truths to be kind or polite. Everyone knows something – but isn’t saying so. This is painful, irresolvable but brave, and very subtly handled without the need for any melodramatic revelations – though much is gently revealed as the play progresses. It felt like a mature work from a playwright at the top of his game and for someone with a fairly clichéd view of Terence Rattigan was a subtle revelation in itself.

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