Ustinov Studio, Bath – until 3 November 2018
Terence Rattigan was understandably consumed with thoughts of love and death – and the right way to die – when he wrote his last great play, In Praise Of Love. Dying himself from leukaemia – after an earlier false diagnosis – the writer poured his feelings into this profoundly moving and tragic semi-autobiographical play.
It was made more poignant because he was once forced to be a silent bystander while his friend, the great Rex Harrison, refused to tell his wife, actress Kay Kendall, that she was dying from the same disease, ‘to spare her the anguish’.
In Praise Of Love started out as a story based on the couple’s reaction to the death sentence but it was shelved after causing furious rows between Harrison and the playwright. Jonathan Church has revived the production for Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio with Robert Lindsay playing Sunday columnist, critic and Islington Marxist, Sebastian Cruttwell and Tara Fitzgerald his dying wife, Lydia.
It takes a while to get going largely due to the length of time Fitzgerald pores over Lydia’s dialogue in a heavily accented Estonian brogue. I don’t know if the accent is true – I don’t think I’ve never met anyone from Estonia – but it is tortuous listening to her.
That said, she delivers a heart-rending turn as a former Estonian Resistance fighter who survived the atrocities of WWII, and the Soviet occupation, only to succumb to a killer disease caused by the deprivations of her early life. Lydia escaped the ravages of post-war Russia thanks to English intelligence officer, Sebastian, who married her in order to get her a British passport and freedom in the West. Yet the business arrangement, forged in a brothel, has grown into something more. Exactly what that is only becoming evident much later.
The couple have now been together for nearly 30 years, have had a son, Joey, who, to the disgust of his father, has betrayed his roots and is campaigning for the Liberals, and now live in 1970s North London surrounded by the trappings of a very successful writer.
Lydia, who seems nothing more than a household drudge, is apparently indispensable to Seb who isn’t capable of pouring himself a drink or plugging in a lamp. But is he really as helpless as he appears?
The tragedy is that Lydia is dying, and is intent on keeping it as secret from her husband, who she thinks wouldn’t be able to cope without her.
While Seb is fully aware and wants to keep the truth from his wife. After a life scarred by the traumas of war how can he tell his brave Lydia that there is no hope?
Caught in the middle is long time family friend, fellow writer, Mark (eloquent Julian Wadham with a none too-convincing American accent), who ends up being a confidente to both and powerless to intervene.
The plot is riddled with untold truths, which all four characters evade or dodge around, much like the games of chess enjoyed by all three men.
What Mark should have done, of course, is sit both Seb and Lydia down and force them to admit the truth if only so that they can make the most of Lydia’s remaining months.
Mark has always loved Lydia – and isn’t afraid to show it even in front of Seb – and he hates the pretence.
Lindsay is terrific as the blustering, egotistical Seb who puts on a brave front for appearances but cries uncontrollably when his wife is out of the room.
When we first meet Seb he’s arrogant, self-centred and condescending. Yet it is soon apparent that he’s terrified of losing his wife and is handling the news with a combination of bravado and deceit.
“I am an uncaring shit,” he admits after missing his writer son’s first TV drama, to spend the afternoon with his mistress.
But Lindsay’s complex performance is as subtle and multi-dimensional as a game of chess. The truth, and his distress, is played out not in his voice but in his eyes. He looks utterly devastated.
After a moving speech, when he tells Mark about Lydia’s harrowing wartime experiences, the normally bluff writer breaks down.
“Life without Lydia will be such unending misery!”
Christopher Bonwell gives an honest turn as Joey. He and his father have an uneasy relationship and the adult strops, ideological battles and incomprehension between the generations, is something most parents will recognise.
Rattigan’s fine story, which, at times, seems quaintly old fashioned, showed that the quintessionatally English writer, who had fallen out of fashion by the 1970s, still had something to say in the twilight of his life.
In Praise Of Love runs in the Ustinov Studio until November 3.
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