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The Winslow Boy

Roundabout Theatre Company presents the Old Vic production of THE WINSLOW BOY by Terence Rattigan at the American Airlines Theatre, 42nd Street, New York.

This production of Terence Rattigan’s THE WINSLOW BOY was originally seen at the Old Vic in London last year, directed by Lindsay Posner. In the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production, Mr Posner once again directs, utilising the London designs for Costume and Set by Peter McIntosh. The acting company is all new. The play has not been revived on Broadway since its original production in 1947. There have been two films made from the material – the Anthony Asquith version of 1948 (Robert Donat, Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Margaret Leighton); and the 1999 version directed by (surprise, surprise!) David Mamet (Jeremy Northam, Nigel Hawthorne and Rebecca Pidgeon).

THE WINSLOW BOY is based on an actual case concerning a young boy, Arthur Arder-Slee, accused of petty theft, and without any consultation with family, was dismissed by the Osborne Naval College in 1908. The conventions of the times would have condemned this young man to an irreparable loss of reputation and probable social advancement. Sure of his son’s innocence the father pursued the matter to the highest authorities employing the best advocates possible, to clear his young son’s and family honour, invoking that Right must be Done.

Terence Rattigan took liberties with the actual facts and produced a four act play that still has at its centre the high moral grounds of the rights of any individual to justice, but encases it within the turmoil of an ordinary family in the midst of sweeping and speedy technological changes and consequent changes in social value contexts: moving from the values of the staid Queen Victoria era into the new conventions of the profligate Edward – the political slide into the First World War growing, in a rush to catastrophe.

The Winslow family is led by a conservative but open-minded father, Arthur (Roger Rees), his wife being a conventional woman of the period, Grace (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). The eldest is Catherine (Charlotte Parry) a young progressive intellectual, a suffragette, actively working for women’s rights. Her suitors are relatively conventional men of the times, John Watherstone (Chandler Williams), a man of the military, and Desmond Curry (Michael Cumpsty), a solicitor representing the family. Dickie Winslow (Zachary Booth) a distracted bright young thing studying at Oxford, but more interested in the ‘bunny hop’, is the elder brother to Ronnie Winslow (Spencer Davis Milford) the 14 year old at the centre of the furore of the play.There is a faithful maid to the family,Violet (Henny Russell) and a leading legal figure, Sir Robert Morton (Alessandro Nivola) who takes on the authoritarian machine of the status quo of the Government and the Navy, motivated by political career kudos, a sense of justice, and, perhaps a twinge of the heart!

The structure of this play by Terence Rattigan is a model of its time: four acts with the conventions of the well made play, with efficient expositionary techniques applied to plot and character, with each act rising to an exciting cliff hanger climax. What it has, as well, is a deeply and cleverly embedded grave moral discussion/debate, propelled by the principal plot and the many intricate sub-plots ‘oiled’ with gentle humour and family melodrama. THE WINSLOW BOY is, indeed, a text book guide to the writing of the well made play and ought to be a reference for all exploring the possibility of writing for the theatre (or screen). Michael Billington, the London theatre critic, in his book STATE OF THE NATION: BRITISH THEATRE SINCE 1945 (2007), highly appraises the work of Rattigan and regards, retrospectively, his valuable, under-appreciated and estimated skill and contribution to the social debate of his time.

Watching this play the other evening one could comprehend why it has re-appeared in the two international English speaking centres of the theatre as art, at this time in our history, for, for all of its period conventions, it still is stirringly relevant and moving. As Arthur Winslow drives his principled action to the central attention of his societal betters, he gradually places undue health pressures on himself with disintegrating consequences to the welfare of his family, almost to ruin. Even, the cynical professional politician and lawyer, Sir Robert Morton, makes a surprising choice in the turmoils of this striving for right.

Is principled action doomed to fail in a society under the spell of a profit oriented market? Do the circumstances, today, force a defender of truth and transparency to intemperate demagogy? What use it to be right when you haven’t got the power? What choices do you make? Do you make the choice to do ‘good’ for yourself? Or, do you make the ‘smart’ choice for yourself? Does one assuage, neglect one’s conscience, to maintain societal position and survival? Does truth and honour have value? Is Might or prevailing custom always Right? These are the questions that Arthur Winslow must agonisingly confront and take the consequence of making a principled choice. They are, surely, questions terribly relevant for us today. I sat there asking myself, “What would I do?”, and was moved with the role model that this play gave us to contemplate, in 2013.

There are great central performances from Ms Parry as Catherine – a role, surely, to interest any actor with ambition -focused, intelligent and deeply wise; Chandler Williams as the conventional dupe to custom, John Watherstone and especially Spencer Davis Milford as Ronnie at the cause and centre of the storm- the work is impressively secure and true. Mr Nivola as Sir Robert Morton grows in concentrated power, progressively, in his tasks. His first major scene, the interrogation, not yet as true as the later work.

Roger Rees presents the quibbling, choleric patriarch, Arthur, with for me, an overarching sense of the climax of the play too early, instead of the scene by scene development of the disappointments and triumphs of the arc of the journey written. Rattigan has not written a character that can be much liked, he is formidable, testy, touchy, cranky in his journey to physical demise, and it is only in the climax of the play that we can, should, fully appreciate and forgive him for his steadfast sacrifice of himself and his family. Note that Rattigan’s most famous character, Crocker-Harris in the 1948, THE BROWNING VERSION, too, is not a man to necessarily come to love, too soon in the play – it is, as in this play, the peeling of the ‘onion layers’ that has us ultimately recognising a man of substance against all the usual measures of expectation. These are the kind of heroes that Mr Rattigan cherished. In this production the physical energy of the impulses of Mr Rees in his technique, explode out of him, and appeared, sometimes, at odds with what the story’s character’s physical decline demands. It sometimes appeared, to me, to be an exhibition of this actor’s demonstration of his formidable skills as a craftsman, than an ownership and identification of and within the character. Ms Mastrantonio, too, falls to reveal, as actor, her opportunities that Rattigan has given her. Instead of living the life of the woman, Grace, mired in the conventions of a time past – the performance choices sometimes incline to indicate, for the audience, the emotional temper of the character and the scene instead of breathing it, being it. Undoubted flaws from these strong actors, but not completely derailing to the Rattigan impact.

THE WINSLOW BOY is, in form, a very conventional play – with, even in 2013, no harm done to its entertainment value, I can assure you – solid, witty and human. It’s social and political message is timeless, and, I felt in the audience on Broadway in New York, in 2013, timely, considering what is happening in Washington at the moment, let alone with my own qualms concerning my own democratically elected government in Canberra.

Theatre as not just entertainment, but a provocation to concern over our civilisation and its contemporary trajectory.

This was a “preview” performance.