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Ross/Chichester Festival Theatre

Ross/T.E.Lawrence was a complex man and unravelling him is no easy matter. Much of his achievements and sufferings are gleaned from his own work Seven Pillars of Wisdom and therefore uncorroborated. Then we have our own perception of Lawrence of Arabia based on the David Lean film and Peter O’Toole emerging from the desert  in his white flowing Arab garb. Terence Rattigan’s play goes some way in unravelling the man. It is also relevant today as a study of pan-Arab nationalism, the bounds to which warfare should respect human rights, military discipline and repressed homosexuality.

Although Lawrence appears to be something of a showman after the war he enlisted in the RAF at Uxbridge under the name of Ross. The play starts with his carpeting for insubordination. It then flashes back to 1916 where he worked in the Map office but, acting without a mandate, led the Arab revolt that led to the capture of Aqaba from the Turks. However the French and English already had secret plans not to permit Arabic hegemony through their own state so their aspirations were frustrated. Lawrence knew and was anguished by this as his man Crown Pircne Geosla would never become the ruler. Lawrence’s arguments withe the top brass cover much of the drama. To compensate for a set that has 3 pillars but is otherwise bare, there is film projection of Lawrence’s successful covert campaign behind Turkish lines. There is also the searing scene when after capture he is raped. Modern historians cast doubt on this and in an illuminating essay on Lawrence in the programme William Boyd reflects on the enigma that is Lawrence: he was the illegitimate son of a Baronet and his real name was Chapman and Boyd thought him asexual with masochistic tendencies as he was beaten as a child. That he grew up in separate accommodation in the family home in Oxford reveals a man that liked to distance himself from the reality of his immediate environment. Joseph Fiennes delivers the role superbly and rightfully earned an ovation. The play with an interval (3 hours long), perhaps too long for a successful transfer to the West End though a modern diverse audience may well engage a cosmopolitan with its themes except there is no female roles or input.

After being stuck in gridlock traffic in Covent Garden after Beautiful and suffering the drivel that was The Threepenny Opera it was a pleasure to return to Chichester.  I had a most enjoyable dinner withe Editor of the Rust at the Chichester Harbour Hotel which our Daffers recommends strongly. The sea bream was superb. Then only a short stroll to the Festival  Theatre although the heavens opened, a comfortable seat with excellent vision, a well organised bar, friendly and helpful staff.  Sadly Jonathan Church and Alan Finch’s reign as Directors is coming to an end. They should have gone to the National.

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About Tim Holford-Smith

Despite running his architectural practice full-time, Tim is a frequent theatre-goer and occasional am-dram producer. More Posts