Sunday, May 8, 2011

Cause Célèbre

Dateline: May 1935. The tabloid newspapers are going wild over a sensational murder trial at The Old Bailey. The accused is a beautiful 39 year old mother and her 18 year old chauffer. The victim is her 68 year old third husband. Whoa – sex, violence, alcohol, intrigue....

When Terrance Rattigan came to use the story in a radio play, it was nearly 40 years later. It eventually became a stage play, and was first performed just a few months before Rattigan’s death in 1977. Somewhat bizarrely, the play not only features the ‘real’ people Alma Rattenbury and George Percy Wood, who were accused in 1935, but also adds a sub-plot about a female juror who is a biographical sketch of Rattigan’s own mother, and her son, an autobiographical sketch of Rattigan himself. Thus, the psychological twists and turns get rather complicated.

The real Alma & Francis Rattenbury in the early 1930s

One thing that can be said is that there isn’t a main character in this play for whom you can feel much sympathy. Another thing that can be said is that it exposes some very peculiar sexual and moralistic hang-ups. I hesitate to say they are quintessentially British, you but wouldn’t be too far wrong if you leapt to that conclusion. As one critic put it:

Rattigan’s work is a sustained assault on English middle-class values: fear of emotional commitment, terror in the face of passion, apprehension about sex. Few dramatists this century have written with more understanding about the human heart.

True, and perhaps that’s why no-one ends up looking too good. Alma Rattigan, the accused murderess, is played extremely well by Anne-Marie Duff, who puts her character through a whole gamut of emotions, from sex kitten to sobbing mother to publically berated sex fiend. The barrister who defends her is also well played, and his character (Mr. O’Connor) is amusing and clever. But for cute names, the prize goes to the prosecuting barrister, Mr. Croom-Johnson.

The make-believe Alma and her young lover George

This all made for a very thoughtful night at the theatre (The Old Vic , in this case). The play certainly gives plenty of food for thought on the question of moral standards; but as a quote in the program reminds us, in post-war Britain – as always – “moral standards were whatever middle-aged, middle-class men said they were.”

I expect you would like to know if Alma was convicted of murder. But best I don’t spoil the ending.

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  1. I sympathised with Edith. She is not without feelings but stands firmly by she believes to be right. She wasn't prepared to accept her husband or marriage after what had happened although her decision was against the norm in that period. Ditto the transformation she went through in how she perceived Alma and Alma's actions.

  2. Edith is a complex character, not without her sympathetic points. But rather hard on her husband, don't you think? Actually, the characters were all just like real people, but perhaps with their weakness and strengths rather emphasised. An intriguing play.