Cause Celebre, Terence Rattigan’s final play, makes one glad not to be struggling through his rumour obsessed, judgmental portrayal of 1935. This multi-layered play is based on the true story of Alma Rattenbury who, with her 18-year-old lover, was accused of murdering her husband and chronicles the subsequent trial. Director Thea Sharrock is joining in the 2011 celebrations of the centenary of Rattigan’s birth, as this Old Vic production is on the heels of her much-lauded and sold-out run of Rattigan’s ‘After the Dance’ at the National.
One quickly becomes immersed in this world of the two lead opposing characters; Anne-Marie Duff skillfully portrays the all too likeable Mrs. Rattigan while Niamh Cusack plays the juror, Edith Davenport, who is to decide the widow’s fate. Duffy gives a stunning, multi-leveled performance while Cusack encourages the audience’s sincere sympathy as she goes through life-altering realisations.
The contrast of the public judgment being more precisely aimed at the age gap between the two illicit lovers rather than the actual crime itself raises pertinent questions in today’s media obsessed frenzy. You can’t help but create links between the ever-more salacious stories that newspapers report concerning the trial coupled with the acerbic reactions characters share regarding the accused couple, and the celebrity-crazed daily “rags” of 2011.
Rattigan’s ability to write for women is unquestionable as he so accurately demonstrates the multi-faceted aspects of female relationships. Here you have two women who no longer fulfill sexual expectations of marriage. One looks to a 17-year-old lover while the other chooses the shame of divorce. In the end one’s strict and strident morality saves the other from her own sexual indiscretions. The prisoner wins over her tight-lipped warden, friend turns upon friend when expectations are undermined, and a number of the characters were all too quick to pass judgment. However the two female leads are disappointing in their frailties and one can’t help but wish for more gumption.
Despite the successful posing of grand moral questions, the play itself has niggling flaws and dialogue that waffles. It felt, at times, that the adept performances were simply too big for the script that at times meandered and lost focus. The numerous tangential story lines of lawyers and offspring seem to contribute little to nothing towards the main plot. The staging was excellent in its subtlety and fluidity. Layers in the set successfully conveyed layers in the story. The haunting appearance at the end as well as a violent tableau on the stage adeptly demonstrated theatre’s unique qualities against which, when executed expertly as it was in Cause Celebre, no horror film could ever compete. Shivers did truly creep up the spine.
My overall reaction at the end was to ask why Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic continually gives us weak women. Medea could perhaps be next?