Written by Nicholas Wright for the Chichester Festival, Rattigan’s Nijinsky explores sexuality, privacy, autonomy and unconditional love within the central conceit of why the dying playwright was forced to abandon his screenplay about the life of the much-lauded ballet dancer in the 1970s.
Complex, eternal themes of sexuality, privacy, autonomy and unconditional love.
Terence Rattigan was one of the most dazzling British playwrights of the early-mid twentieth century, one of the highest paid scriptwriters in the world and a prolific record-breaker. He was also - to cannibalise one of his own titles – a ‘celebre’ who had no desire to become a ‘cause’: a closeted homosexual even after decriminalisation, someone who guarded his privacy jealously from the safety of his Bermuda home and a man whose own reticence and repressions texturised most of his plots and shaped many of his characters.
Rattigan’s plays have become an established part of the canon and his own name a byword for a very specific type of English restraint and self-sacrifice. So to place him as the central character in an exploration of personal courage is an interesting proposition. Wright fuses the ‘present’ of the 1970s, in which Rattigan consults Nijinsky’s erstwhile mentor and lover, the impresario Diaghilev, with a rattle through Nijinsky’s ‘past’ - his early career, dazzling promise, unexpected marriage and eventual schizophrenia.
The script is a complex one and was written as part of Rattigan’s centenary celebrations in 2011. The themes are tricky but eternal and touch on some deeply discomfiting tropes which are not really satisfactorily resolved for a 2019 sensibility. Unlike, say The History Boys which is at pains not to glorify pederastic tendencies, Rattigan’s Nijinsky seems to enjoy setting up inappropriate relationships without fully resolving the vulnerabilities and exploitations implicit within them.
This casual glorification of male sexual privilege seems irresponsible in the wake of #metoo and appears to suggest that money, superiority and position can allow you to bed whomever you choose. A bellhop-Rattigan relationship and a grubby ‘casting couch’ scene, for example, are so faintly drawn and devoid of emotional damage limitation that they could be straight out of Carry On Pirouetting.
It is a brave choice for a young group and there were committed characterisations from Alexander Clay as Rattigan, Marcus Tapper as Diaghilev and Daisy Kakkar as Nijinsky’s widow Romola. The stand-out performance is the very strong George Churchill as BBC producer Cedric Messina and it was a shame not to see this natural and commanding performer take centre stage for much more of the time.
Wright’s script allows for an engaging enough insight into the rarefied world of artsy types and their anxieties but ultimately leaves more questions than it gives answers.