Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Review Love In Idleness [Preview]

Francis Beckett takes issue with the late Terence Rattigan's examination of post Second World War society, but takes pleasure in a splendid cast.

 Love in Idleness
by Terence Rattigan
Adapted by Sir Trevor Nunn

The Times They Were (And Are) A Changin'  

It’s a sign of reactionary times when we hear a lot about how the great Terence Rattigan was unjustly cast into the outer darkness by the emergence of the radical playwrights of the late 1950s – John Osborne, Arnold Wesker and the rest. As David Hare once put it, “in rightwing times, rightwing art flourishes.”

Trevor Nunn, who directs Love in Idleness, writes in the theatre programme: “Kenneth Tynan’s excitement at seeing John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956 was understandable, but then his constant rejection and derision of Rattigan, in favour of ‘angry young man’ plays, was a mistake.”

David Hare nailed this rubbish as long ago as 2011, writing: “It has become a commonplace of commentary to turn him [Rattigan] into some sort of public school victim whose fall from grace can be put down to nasty goings-on initiated by yobs at the Royal Court and Stratford East in the 1950s.”

The truth is that the new playwrights spoke to the generation of the Attlee settlement. Rattigan didn’t.  That’s not to deny that Rattigan at his best was a thoroughly accomplished and, in his own way, rather radical playwright.

The play now at the Apollo Theatre, after a run at the Menier Chocolate Factory, is a composite. He wrote a play called Less Than Kind in 1944, then altered it at the behest of the famous acting duo Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt and renamed it Love in Idleness.  Years later he regretted this, and  Nunn has now reworked the two plays into one.

If Nunn is right – and I have no reason to doubt it  – to suppose that this play is at least something approaching the work Rattigan would have produced if left to himself, what it tells us is that the playwright was on the wrong side of history.
Written and produced as the Second World War ground to an end, it addresses, as every writer worth his salt was addressing at that time, the sort of post war world that was going to emerge. 

But while some writers were looking forward to a new and better world, Rattigan, on the evidence of Love in Idleness, was looking forward to business as usual; to a return to the status quo ante, when the rich knew how things should be done, and the poor knew their place. 

He thought the Beveridge Report was so much froth, and the new world that the Labour Party dreamed of creating would turn out to be, as one of his characters puts it, “the same as the old world but spring cleaned a little.”

He was wrong. Between 1945 and 1948 the Attlee government carried out the only real social revolution Britain has ever seen, and Beveridge provided their blueprint.

If Rattigan felt like sneering at it – and he did – that places him in the sad harrumphing old tradition of William Douglas-Home, who wrote a very successful and entirely vacuous play, later a film, around the same time called The Chiltern Hundreds, about a butler who stands for the Conservative Party and defeats the uppity socialist.  (Message: the working class salt of the earth know their place.)

In Love in Idleness, Sir John Fletcher, a rather conservative (with both a small and capital c), Canadian businessman, has been drafted into Winston Churchill’s war cabinet as Minister of Tank Production. 

Presumably Rattigan had in mind the Canadian newspaper proprietor Lord Beaverbrook, whom Churchill appointed as Minister of Aircraft Production in 1940. Yet this is odd because he paints Fletcher as a terribly decent chap, and Beaverbrook was a shit.  

Sir John has parted from his much younger wife, whom we are encouraged to assume is a gold-digger, and is living with the widow of a dentist, whose son is serving with the army in Canada. 

But when the son comes home, he is distressed by this arrangement – both because it makes his mother a kept woman, and because he disapproves of Fletcher’s right wing politics. 

None of the characters rang true to me. Sir John is a wise and kindly multi-millionaire; his widowed lover, Oliva Brown, a charming, rather dippy social climber; and her son Michael a selfish and self-absorbed 18-year-old who has adopted some foolish ideas about making a better world which we are encouraged to hope that he will grow out of soon.

They are played with matchless professionalism and conviction, Sir John by Anthony Head, Olivia by Eve Best and Michael by Edward Bluemel, but nothing these fine actors can do, and nothing Sir Trevor's assured direction can do, will make them anything other than unbelievable standard-bearers of a complacent and reactionary political point.

Nonetheless, it is always a pleasure to watch such very good actors at the top of their form in a well plotted play, so I’m happy to give it an amber light.

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