We expect to be reading a lot about T.E. Lawrence this year as it’s the centenary of the Arab revolt of 1916-18, which saw the uprising of the Arab tribes of the Saudi peninsula against the Turkish invaders. At Chichester we have Ross, written by Terence Rattigan. Recently there was Lawrence of Arabia at Hampstead Theatre which dealt with an imagined close friendship between Lawrence and George Bernard Shaw and his wife.
It’s good to welcome Joseph Fiennes to Chichester. He more than holds his own in the star role of the troubled Lawrence, who, under the false surname of Ross and a change to his biographical details, is serving as an ordinary Aircraft man. He is just beginning to find some peace and become friendly with the other service men when his real identity is revealed to the press.
Although the play starts and finishes at the Royal Air Force depot in England in the winter of 1922, we are taken back to Lawrence’s time in the Middle East during the Arab Revolt. We witness some of the events which have led Lawrence to seek refuge as an anonymous airman in the RAF.
The beginning sees the officers dealing with Ross on a disciplinary charge as he has come back late after a night out. He is disbelieved when in reply to questions about his whereabouts and who he was with, he replies, ““Lord and Lady Astor, Mr and Mrs George Bernard Shaw and the Archbishop of Canterbury!”
Almost all that we have learnt about Lawrence comes from his own writing, chiefly his biographical ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom.’ Rattigan has used the information in the writing to depict Ross’s suffering when he was beaten by Turkish soldiers and was gang-raped by the soldiers. Writer Terence Rattigan has used this information to build his story and in the presence of the Turkish Military Governor (Michael Feast) we hear what is going on as he listens – the vivid sound giving as much of a picture as we need. Lawrence comes away battered and bloody after being beaten and raped. As he limps on stage, we can understand his wish for peace.
Noble’s staging of the play is superb: full use is made of Chichester’s apron stage, with furniture and props brought on to change the basic setting. The large thrusting Chichester theatre stage more than accommodates the various settings of the multiple scenes. When we are taken back to the Middle East, the stage opens up to show three huge pillars reaching the full height of the stage with smaller pillars behind. The stage is flooded with a bright sunlight effect – part of the evocative lighting throughout. We see the inside of a tent in the desert. Lawrence is now in full Arab gear – flowing white gown and a turban. He even acquires a dagger to wear.
The unobtrusive eastern music gives a real sense of place in the Middle East scenes.
There are a number of fine performances: Michael Feast has the correct aquiline features as the sadistic Turkish torturer and Paul Freeman has suitable gravitas as General Allenby. The comrades of Ross at the RAF depot are well differentiated. Good, too, is Nicholas Prasad as Hamed, Ross’s devoted Arab friend who is also his servant and bodyguard. He shows his love for Lawrence when he refuses to leave him after Lawrence has been tortured. Director, Adrian Noble has chosen his cast well and makes sure Rattigan’s humour is brought out. Joseph Fiennes is probably nearer to the real Lawrence in stature than Peter O’Toole in David Lean’s film. Fiennes gives a powerful performance, showing Lawrence’s vulnerability – particularly when he is very ill with malaria – as well as his strengths and his dry sense of humour. He has moments of stillness which are more effective than loud noise as Lawrence gives minimal explanations for wanting to become “just a number” in the RAF. Fiennes puts across Lawrence’s dichotomy of courting fame but also being very private concerning his own feelings. You can tell Fiennes has acted in Shakespearean roles as he speaks clearly with a rhythmical ease.
Chichester Festival Theatre. Booking until 25 June 2016
Box office 01243 781312 cft.org.uk
Review by Carlie Newman