No matter how much the public think they know, they don’t know much of anything about the enigma that was Thomas Edward Lawrence.
Those of us of a certain generation will have watched David Lean’s epic 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia, and romanticised that TE Lawrence was Peter O’Toole, his piercing blue eyes caught in close-up as he single-handedly battled an entire nation. Or we remember Omar Sharif’s lengthy one-shot entrance over the desert on a camel. But we don’t know the real man.
Chichester Festival Theatre probes the man behind the myth in a superb and thrilling revival of Terence Rattigan’s play Ross which opened last night to a well-deserved standing ovation.
Forget O’Toole, or Alec Guinness, Simon Ward or even the diminutive John Mills, who have all played Lawrence on stage. Here Joseph Fiennes, his hair dyed blond, gives a career defining performance as the man who was a brilliant scholar, strategist and soldier, the uncrowned king of the desert, and who eventually became a tortured and wretched shadow of his former self.
Rattigan’s play bristles with his trademark wit, particularly in the early scenes, set in 1922, when we meet Aircraftman Ross who is trying to fit in as a new recruit to the RAF. He has no respect for command or rules and his disregard for both lands him in hot water with his superiors.
But Ross has a secret and it causes him as much pain as the malaria he suffers. Cue flashback to 1916 when an arrogant and cocky map maker left his desk at the Arab Bureau, bought himself an army uniform, and went out into the desert with the certain knowledge that he could end a war between Arabia and Turkey.
His audacity was astonishing. No-one questioned his army rank or his methods, which were bloody and brutal. Dressed as a native he mobilised warring Arab factions and attacked Turkey, scoring numerous victories and earning his moniker of Lawrence of Arabia.
Adrian Noble’s bold and masterly production doesn’t stint on content or style. Chichester’s vast thrust stage looks magnificent with William Dudley’s impressive and evocative design. You could almost taste the sand and smell the camel dung.
Three colossal columns, heavily decorated with ancient hieroglyphics, rise to the ceiling while striped Bedouin tents and carpets are brought on, doors and army office furniture rise from the floor and Paul Pyant’s stark white lighting at the rear of the stage gives the impression of the desert wilderness.
A cinema screen unfurls at intervals to give the audience information about the Arab Rising. Not only do we see maps of troop movements and bombed railway lines but also what looks like grainy newsreel footage of Arab soldiers and slaughtered bodies, which adds to the authenticity of the story.
It’s no secret that Lawrence was brutally gang raped on the orders of a vengeful Turkish military governor (Michael Feast hamming it up like a pantomime villain) and the incident altered him forever.
The audience is spared the horrific outrage but we hear it taking place in a dungeon. When Lawrence finally emerges he is a broken man and he crawls away.
It is a harrowing and distressing performance by the outstanding Fiennes and one which provides a major turning point in the soldier’s life.
Lawrence’s relationship with General Allenby (a quality performance by Paul Freeman) is put under pressure when the clearly injured man demands to be sent back home.
And once there, decorated, honoured and a public hero, Lawrence has a breakdown, fleeing his notoriety and renown by enlisting in the RAF under an assumed name in the hope that he could vanish.
“What made you join the RAF” he’s asked. “I think I had a mental breakdown,” he replied honestly, adding “I came into the RAF to find peace”.
Fiennes’ multi-layered performance is exceptional. We see Lawrence initially brimming with gung-ho confidence and derring-do, possibly in love with the fantasy of being a national hero, and, finally, angry, resentful, terrified of fame and psychologically scarred. The pain and torment is etched on the actor’s face and in the tremor of his husky voice.
There are some excellent support performances in this large male cast including Peter Polycarpou as Sheik Auda Abu Tayi who considers trading in Lawrence for £10,000 and a new pair of false teeth, and Peter Sandys-Clarke as Lawrence’s friend Ronald Storrs. Brendon Hooper, as the barking, blunt Flight Sergeant Thompson, sounds like he’d whip any group of men into shape – even actors.
This deeply compelling and enthralling drama deserves a West End transfer.
Ross plays at Chichester Festival Theatre until June 25.
Joseph Fiennes gives a career defining turn as the brave and emotionally damaged, TE Lawrence, in Chichester Festival Theatre's enthralling revival of Terence Rattigan's Ross.