There’s a process of weaving at work here. Nicholas Wright’s new play is inspired by a never-produced Terence Rattigan screenplay about the life – and loves – of Vaslav Nijinsky. Wright takes this unfilmed script – written in 1974 for the BBC but withdrawn by the playwright – and threads it with scenes from the Rattigan’s own life.
As the ageing playwright self-medicates in his suite at Claridge’s and considers his creative legacy, episodes from the Njinsky script invade his room. At one point the suite becomes a ballet class, flooded by young boys in white, while later on performers from the Ballet Russes glide and leap behind him. Reclining on his sofa while elegantly clutching a Sobranie, Rattigan also has a number of earnest, soul-searching conversations with Diaghilev in which the Russian impresario advises him on matters of the heart.
Rattigan’s screenplay explores the intense relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinsky without tiptoeing around their sexuality. But he seems most concerned with what prompts the enigmatic young dancer’s sudden marriage to Romola, a determined admirer with whom he didn’t even share a common langue, and the impact this has both on his relationship with Diaghilev and eventually on his own sanity. Though it’s not always clear how much of the play has come from Wright and how much from Rattigan, it’s not always easy to see where that line falls, the screenplay seems more caught up in Romola’s evolution as a woman than with Nijinsky himself, who remains an unknowable, tortured figure throughout.
Fittingly it is Romola, now old, who halts the production of the film by threatening to expose Rattigan’s ‘bestial’ urges. Perturbed by the rise of a new wave of playwrights who “couldn’t write bum on a wall”, Rattigan is already concerned with the way in which his work will be remembered, and he worries about being tagged as queer, of his work being labelled and boxed, its impact narrowed.
This encounter is one of the more gripping in what is a rather bitty production. Wright’s dialogue is too often weighted with exposition and some of the lines he puts in the playwright’s mouth feel cribbed from research notes, such as when Rattigan argues that he could and did write women as women, not just men masquerading as women.
Malcolm Sinclair gives a warm and understated performance as Rattigan. The production often requires him to be a passive figure, to silently watch on as things unfold in front of him, but he always gives the impression he is contemplating his situation. He is active in his stillness. This is in marked contrast to some of the other performances; there is little shading in Jonathan Hyde’s flamboyant Diaghilev, with his Pepé Le Pew hair-do; Hyde is however much more convincing in his brief turn as a big-shot television producer.
This use of doubling enhances the dreamlike quality of the production. Rattigan, already stricken with the cancer that would kill him, frequently swigs from a medicine bottle or tops up his glass with J&B. The play seems intended to have the texture of memory and Philip Franks’ production is able to evoke the sense of a man nearing the end of his life and still wrestling with who he is and how he wants to be remembered.
But some unhappy compromises seem to have been reached in translating material intended for the screen to the stage; the play has a choppy quality and the dialogue is often functional. While the curiosity value of the piece is clear and one can see what excited Wright about it, he never really makes it feel like a great loss that the screenplay was shelved. Franks’ production also seems to neglect the visual potential of the script; Nijinsky’s creative daring is discussed without being shown and the play’s relationship with dance is somewhat half-hearted throughout. There’s a leap here, a turn here but no one really moves like a dancer
The exception to this is the scene where Romola and Nijinsky first glimpse each other. She is wearing a tuxedo, as she has been informed that this will appeal to him (It does, but not in the obvious way; he believes that art has no gender). With no common tongue, they attempt to speak, first in Russian, then Hungarian and then in halting French, before doing away with words altogether and allowing their bodies to move together, to connect through dance.