Jun 10

Review: Ross at Chichester Festival Theatre

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ROSS by Rattigan, , Writer - Terence Rattigan, Director - Adrian Noble, Designer - William Dudley, Lighting - Paul Pyant, Chichester Festival Theatre, 2016, Credit: Johan Persson/ayiinROSSatChichesterFestivalTheatrePhotobyJohanPersson.

Joseph Fiennes leads the cast in in Terence Rattigan’s bio-drama about TE Lawrence

Photographs: Johan Persson

When it comes to writing repressed and complex characters Rattigan is something of a dab hand. The life of TE Lawrence, therefore, gives him plenty to work with.

The story is well known, not least thanks to David Lean’s epic (if not strictly accurate) movie, Lawrence of Arabia. But while the play is light on Hollywood glitz, the writing is pure class. Rattigan’s account of how Lawrence (who was routinely beaten as a child and was a repressed homosexual) rose from being a civilian in the Map Office to a celebrity who led the unconventional but effective 1916-18 Arab Revolt against the Turks is both compelling and disturbing.

The play opens in a far less exotic setting than the Middle East. Having chosen to hide himself away from public scrutiny by assuming a false name and joining the lowly ranks of the RAF, at a base in Uxbridge Aircraftman ‘Ross’ is being charged with insubordination.

Asked to explain his unauthorised absence of the previous night, his insistence that he was dining with Lord and Lady Astor, The Arch Bishop of Canterbury and Mr and Mrs George Bernard Shaw is deemed outrageous cheek. But while his superiors don’t believe him, one of his fellows does. Having assured himself of Ross’s real identity, the opportunity for blackmail is too easy to resist. Cue the beginning of Lawrence’s Arabian story, told through a malaria-induced flashback.

Designer William Dudley uses every inch of Chichester’s thrust stage to evoke the sense of desert expanse, with occasional black and white film footage aiding historical context.

There is much to admire in Adrian Noble’s polished production, but one of the greatest joys is the casting. Without a single ‘slightly less than’ contribution, the overall result is absolutely cohesive and effortlessly fluid.

Joseph Fiennes is superb. Perfectly judging Lawrence’s complexities and contradictions, every nuance is beautifully captured.

Michael Feast is terrifyingly brilliant as the Turkish Military Governor (his vile orders being audibly carried out make for uncomfortable listening and saw theatre-goers shifting awkwardly in their seats), while Paul Freeman as General Allenby and Peter Polycarpou Sheik Auda Abu Tayi also achieve gear changes between light and shade with dexterity and conviction. But it is undeniably a magnificent Team Effort.

A maverick, the conquering hero, an intellectual who was profoundly driven, what is perhaps most interesting about the Lawrence story is the essence of the man himself; someone plagued by demons who waged their own war on him. And someone who longed, more than anything, to fit in and belong.

Highly recommended and with a short run, this ticket looks likely to be as hot as desert sand. Get in quick.

Until 25 June. Box Office: 01243 781312 www.cft.org.uk