After the Dance – Terrance Rattigan and his Joan of Arc. (Theatre Review)
After the Dance
New Theatre, 9 August to 9 September
Images: © Bob Seary
Please note – this review contains spoilers
By far the most interesting question in Terrance Rattigan’s After the Dance is why does Joan die? Terrance Rattigan wrote After the Dance in 1939, yet it has spiked a strong revival in the last two decades after languishing for over half a century as one of Rattigan’s forgotten works. After the Dance is easy to dismiss with its antiquated misogyny and tiresome moralizing, but these elements are not on-the-nose enough to put us off a revival and deep fascination with these rather stereotyped characters. Surely one of the reasons for this is the (spoiler alert) untimely death of Joan, whose suicide marks a crisis point for the narrative, but (shockingly) not a powerful enough response from the represented group anesthetised by alcohol and Freud’s exemplified death drive. Is this not precisely how we live our life today? Mother earth dies before us, 90% of humans on the planet live impoverished lives and half the humans on the planet live in extreme poverty (living on under $2.50 US per day) and yet the rest of us continue to eat drink and be merry. Perhaps it is this that we see in Terrance Rattigan’s play. After all, it was the destruction caused by the excesses of the 1920’s that Rattigan wanted his audience to see when he first put pen to paper.
However, while this might account for the revival of the play it does not account for why Joan dies. This central question is brought to the fore in this wonderful New Theatre adaptation by the superbly melded talents of director Giles Gartrell-Mills and Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame who plays Joan. In this current production, the pair combine to bring Joan front and center in After the Dance, pivoting the play around her character, such that she becomes far more interesting than her antagonists, David and Helen. Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame plays a soft yet wily Joan, a woman of great skill and accomplishment in being woman, but who is palpably bored with her role. Ennui becomes a driving force and a desire to put off making something happen festers inside her soul. (this superb performance is reason enough to see the show) When the youthful Helen (Claudia Ware) enters her life, Joan recognizes her and accepts her for what she represents, rather than who she is, prophesising David’s (George Banders) response to her. As the sex/subject who gives birth, Joan personifies an inevitable ambivalence for David and the others. Life turns to death, good to evil, purity to impurity. Death’s ambivalence generates David’s fear, violence, even matricide – if not suicide. David’s domination of Joan is one means for him to avoid confrontation with death and embodiment. The only way for Joan and David’s chosen lifestyle to continue, is if Joan dies, becoming the sacrificial lamb for David’s fountain of youth.
This is exemplified in archetypes like Lars Von Triers Bess McNeill (Breaking the Waves) who dies to preserve her husband Jan. But the symbol is extended to terrible real life in the examples of Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill who (it can be argued) died to preserve the life of Ted Hughes. This then, gives a new depth to Terrance Rattigan’s point, disarmingly revealed in David to be too little too late, when he is lectured by Wilde archetype John (John Michael Burdon) on his treatment of women.
Man’s domination of woman results in the dubiety of ‘woman.’ “The unthought elements which constitute ‘the philosophical imaginary’ include the separate non-rational and unnoticed images in cultural texts. This duplicity of imagery becomes tied to the duplicity of woman. In this way, nature and culture are shaped by the ambivalence of human embodiment and the ambiguity of patriarchal concepts.” (Pamela Sue Anderson – See source below) Even Joan’s death is not enough for David to see he ties his women to his vision of the world as the embodiment of all he does not want to confront. Just as Ted Hughes escapes judgement or censure (but not criticism) so David is left continuing his ways, shedding one set of friends for another. It is no accident his first wife is called Joan, for her life and death under Rattigan’s eye, reflect that of Joan of Arc.
Perhaps this holds part of the key to our contemporary fascination with this old play and our interest in exploring it through a revival? As a visionary Terrance Rattigan comes to new life in After the Dance, especially when we see Joan’s death embodied in her life and in the younger Helen. Helen enacts sobriety, Joan the party, but both are muse to the witless David, stumbling through life imagining he is self-aware and intelligent, blissfully refusing to see the cost of his luxurious presumptions. As a reader of philosophy, I see almost every text ever written by a man scrawled on the back of women trained to be less-than to his greatness. Rattigan’s is a profound awareness and makes After the Dance remarkably contemporary. It was Nietzsche himself who asked “what if truth was a woman?” and then ran from all the sentence encompassed when a glimmer of Rattigan’s point surfaced.
This is a beautiful production of After the Dance, filled with elegant performances. Thanks to John Cervenka’s set and Brodie Simpsons costumes it is sumptuous and beautiful to look at. After the Dance is pacey, lively and quick witted, all the while embodying a profundity that moves through time. Rattigan was watching women closely, much closer than his contemporaries. In After the Dance, it shows.
Death and/as Woman: Ambiguity and Ambivalence in the Philosophical Imaginary
Pamela Sue Anderson, Oxford