Cause Célèbre at The Old Vic
The Old Vic theatre just five minutes walk from Waterloo station is worth a visit at no matter what you go and see. Originally built in 1818, it has run, opened and closed its doors and been bought and sold many times over and is deservingly one of the most famous of London’s theatres. It was badly damaged by bombs in 1941, and lovingly restored to its former beauty in 1982.
The theatre is now owned by the Old Vic Theatre Trust with Kevin Spacey as artistic director of the theatre company. The theatre has seen actors and actresses such as Michael Redgrave, Laurence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans, Judi Dench, Alec Guinness, Anthony Hopkins, and Maggie Smith on its stage over the years and is still the place to see rising stars and established performers in plays from Shakespeare to Noel Coward.
Cause Célèbre by Terence Rattigan is set in 1935, and is based on the true story of Alma Rattenbury a woman in her late thirties who, with her teenage lover George, is charged with the violent murder of her husband.
Starring Anne Marie Duff as Alma Rattenbury, the play focuses on Alma’s trial; seen through Alma’s conversations with her lawyers and flashbacks to the events surrounding the murder. The audience also follows the progress of the trial through the experiences of jury forewoman, Edith Davenport, played by Niamh Cusack, and her family. The play shows opposing images of 1930s decadence and moral humility.
Rattigan explores several themes in his portrayal of the thirties era and the case, which caused scandal and severe public censure due to contemporary society’s perceived perversity of an older, married woman conducting an affair with a much younger man. The play displays and examines obsessive loves, emotional and physical need, individual strength and frailty, propriety, social expectation and the individual expectations between lovers, friends and family members. Perhaps the most pressing themes however are those of sex and sexuality and the roles of men and women in 1930s England, with some easily recognisable today.
Rattigan shows the audience the image and ‘roles of women’ in 1930s society through Alma and Edith: wife, mother, lover, friend, enemy and responsibility-bearer all appear. Alma and Edith are portrayed as variously weak and strong, sexually repressed, carefree and careful with many interesting developments and changes in the audience’s perception of both women. Duff and Cusack play the roles spectacularly, to the point where audience members familiar with the TV series Shameless, or the film The Magdalene Sisters are so absorbed in Alma that it is easy to forget that you have ever seen Anne Marie Duff before now in this play. Cusack’s performance is also fantastic, her role opposite Duff initially seems starchy, but subtly grows in complexity revealing and developing Edith and what the audience sees of Rattigan’s thirties women on the whole.
Perhaps one of the aspects which makes Cause Célèbre such a successful and moving play is that Rattigan explores woman as an individual, bowed by social expectation, image, individual desires and needs so that, for the audience, Alma and Edith transcend the roles they are given.
Sex, sexuality and examinations of choice, public and private judgement are key within Cause Célèbre. Alma’s sexuality appears at the forefront of Cause Célèbre, in her relationship with George, her personal choices and society’s judgement. The themes of apparent sexual liberty and sexual repression permeate the play, and most of its characters. Edith’s and Alma’s choices and actions in sex and sexuality are placed between the pressure of Rattigan’s portrayal of 1930s mores and the audience’s own perceptions to great effect.
I felt like I was really watching a trial happening in 1935. Alternately tragic and comic Cause Célèbre is ultimately moving, for its depth of character and the widening perception I gained as a member of the audience. Cause Célèbre shows human strength and ultimately the resounding consequences of human frailty. It was a fantastic window into a life in 1935 and the Old Vic’s costume and set designs for the production were elegant, well designed and understated to great effect.
Cause Célèbre is running now until the 11th of June. For a night at the theatre it’s really worth going, a five star night out. Tickets can be bought online or at the box office by telephone +44 (0)844 871 7628 with prices ranging from £15 to £48.50
The Old Vic, The Cut, London SE1 8NB
(post written by Elena Gouldthorpe, for Vintage Secret)