CAUSE CELEBRE was Terence Rattigan's last play, produced in 1977, the year of his death. By that time he was considered a representative of a long lost period of British drama, replaced by more modern writers like Pinter, Osborne and, briefly, Joe Orton. Through major revivals of his work in this, his centenary year, theatergoers see a fine craftsman with the gift of creating complex, rich characters. Like his American contemporary, Tennessee Williams, Rattigan was best at writing women and, in a more understated way than Williams, the ways in which female sexuality comes into conflict with social norms and the expectations of marriage.
Based on a 1935 murder case in which a woman and her eighteen-year-old lover are accused of murdering the woman's husband, CAUSE CELEBRE, at its best moments, focuses on two women whose sexuality, or lack of same, do not jibe with the expectations of middle-class marriage. From the first, we see Alma Rattenbury (Anne-Marie Duff)as a vibrant, sexual woman trapped in a comfortable, but sexless marriage to an older man who doesn't seem at all interested in her. Her interview of seventeen-year-old George, who has applied for a job as gardener, is a seduction. To the public, the murder case is sensational because Alma is having sex (twice a night according to the papers) with a boy twenty years younger than she. Alma's sexual transgressions are more horrible to the public than the murdering of her husband and deserving of the death penalty. Alma is contrasted with Edith Davenport (Niamh Cusack) who is appointed forewoman of the jury that will decide Alma's guilt or innocence. Edith has lost her husband because of her refusal to have sex with him and her morality that will not accept that he may need to find sex elsewhere while still loving her. Edith tells the judge that she can not possibly judge Alma fairly because she so despises her immorality. Edith's son, the same age as Alma's lover, has a sexually transmitted dsease from an encounter with a prostitute and has moved in with his estranged father because he knows his mother will never understand or forgive him. "That damned woman," Edith cries, as if Alma Rattenbury had somehow indirectly seduced her son. Yet Edith's strict morality saves Alma who is innocent of the murder. For Edith, the law must be obeyed, and however much the public wants sinful Alma to hang, she shouldn't die for a crime she did not commit.
My first impulse was to blame the play for the lack of focus. I left thinking that had Rattigan written CAUSE CELEBRE when he was in better health, he might have shaped it into a powerful study of these two women. I still stick by some of this first impression. The many courtroom scenes and scenes between the male barristers are not particularly interesting because the lawyers aren't interesting characters. We really needed more domestic scenes and less of the trial. Rattigan's greatest play about a trial, THE WINSLOW BOY, never shows us the courtroom but stays in the home of the major characters. The contrast between Alma and Edith is the main interest here and everything else seems to be tangential.
However, after rereading the script I see that Thea Sharrock, who directed the brilliant production of Rattigan's AFTER THE DANCE at the National last year, is partly to blame for the sense that the focus is not as fully on Alma and Edith as it should be. She has played to the problems of the cavernous, unfriendly Old Vic by using a very deep playing area. Many scenes call out for intimacy and the staging and set often place the actors too far from the audience which seemed odd as the thrust stage would allow actors to get closer. The cast seemed uniformly fine but in the fourth row of the circle of the Old Vic I could not see faces and thus was emotionally distanced from the action. I have come to realize that if one isn't in the first fifteen or sixteen rows of the stalls of the Old Vic, there isn't much point in being there at all.
CAUSE CELEBRE may not be Rattigan at his best. However, it is a better play than one sees in this production. I'd love to see it in a more intimate space.
CAUSE CELEBRE. Old Vic Theatre. March 21, 2011.