We are continually reminded that there are no certainties in war or in matters of the heart
We are continually reminded that just as there are no certainties in war, so there are are also few certainties in marriage or matters of the heart, says William Cash
FLARE PATH BY Terence Rattigan and directed by Trevor Nunn is a play that journeys deep into the emotional night. Currently revived at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, Flare Path was first produced in 1942 and was the first play about the real lives of the RAF during the war. In many ways it was the RAF version of Journey's End.
Act I was nearly lost during a bombing raid in November 1941 on a mission over the Bay of Biscay. Rattigan (who was in the RAF's 95 Squadron), had written the first draft in a hard-backed exercise book which was at the bottom of a kit bag that he was forced to throw out after his flying boat was shot at, an engine had packed up and all crew were required to offload their personal belongings to reduce fuel consumption. Just before his kit was thrown into the howling night wind at 900 mph, Rattigan managed to rip out the pages of his new play and stuff them into his bomber jacket's pockets. Eight hours later, the plane just managed to scrape back to a landing strip at Bathurst, in Gambia.
In Flare Path, this sort of terrifying flying 'do' – in which the RAF men daily risked their lives – is described with characteristic understatement as 'not exactly a piece of cake'. This sort of coded banter cloaks the play in a breastplate of emotional armour. Whilst Rattigan allows his characters to give the impression – on the outside – that they are tough, brave and patriotic and selfless glamour boys, inside we see they are broken down, burnt out and running on empty. They are close to breaking point.
Rattigan's RAF boys might casually talk about 'shooting up' in their 'Wimpies' – RAF slang for diving over an enemy target and attacking it in their Wellington bombers but such breezy talk hides the darker truths that lie under the plot like ground mines. Rattigan is a master of the 'theatre of character' and – like Stoppard and Pinter – his language is more likely to hides truths than reveal it.
After his Bay of Biscay mission Rattigan himself admitted to a friend: 'I was shitting myself.' Indeed, on one level the play explores the inadequacy of language – especially the stiff upper lip English variety – as a reliable, or even helpful, form of communication between adults when it comes to showing their real emotions and fears. The real truths remain subterranean and monosyllabic; unsaid, uncertain, ambiguous, bitterly cruel (especially when a wife is on the point of walking out of a marriage) and unknowable.
The play, set in the “residents' lounge” at the Falcon Hotel in Lincolnshire where members of the RAF are billeted, explores this inner hinterland in a way that is sensitive and compelling, with a classical plot line that works beautifully, partly for its simplicity. A glamorous and languorous married actress called Patricia (decorously and movingly played by an electrically charged Sienna Miller) faces an anguished emotional choice that she seems incapable of making on her own.
James Purefoy and Sienna Miller
At the beginning of the play she is on the point of leaving her affable new husband (a gutsy young 'flight loot' with a DFC called Teddy, skillfully played by Harry Hadden-Paton) for a former lover called Peter Kyle, a suave and self-centred divorced cinema actor star (smoothly played by James Purefroy) whose past-it date is close approaching. He has spent the war poolside in LA, and now wants Patricia back, having left her behind before the war to make his career in Hollywood.
But the war inconveniently gets in the way and – after her husband returns from a daring night mission while her movie star lover sashays around in a silk dressing gown knocking back pink gins – she becomes increasingly 'torn' between duty and desire. The play may be a patriotically (Rattigan is never sentimental) stirring and romantically uplifting drama about what really goes on inside RAF marriages, outside of the mess room, but we are continually reminded that just as there are no certainties in war, so there are are also few certainties in marriage or matters of the heart.
Only when pushed over the ledge – such as when a former barmaid's Polish count husband doesn't return from a flying mission and she reads an 'in-the-event-of-my-death' letter that he has written her – are the characters forced to confront their feelings, loves, distress and fears. No amount of pink gins, beer, cigarettes, or mess room slang can hide the fact that the war has left them all – in their various ways – emotionally grounded, scarred and bled almost as empty as the hotel's whisky supply.
In the end, Patricia decides to stay with her husband, and her self-regarding film star lover returns back to LA without her, carrying his own suitcase, draining the last of the pinks gin and not making a 'scene'. If the play has a message, it is that there is little place for love – especially selfish and adulterous love affairs that swagger and burn with their own vanity and self-importance – at a time when the world is crashing down and young men and decent husbands are braving their funk-filled lives on every 'daylight do'.
But Rattigan is too sensitive to simply leave the audience with such a patriotic platitide. Kyle manages to redeem himself partly at the end when he turns French translator for the benefit of the former bar maid turned countess called Doris. At times, Sarah Crowden hams up her Northern blowsiness a little too much but Nunn's production is elegant, fast-moving and almost flawless in terms of ingenious technical add ons, (improving the Rattigan stage instructions) such as providing actual footage of Wellington bombers taking off, so the audience feel they are sitting in a 1940's cinema watching a Pathe newsreel. When Winston Churchill saw the play, he said to Rattigan afterwards: 'I was moved by this play. It is a masterpiece of understatement. But we are rather good at that, aren't we?'
While I am sure Rattigan would have nodded politely, this was not only what the play was about. It shows the bravery of 'our boys' in dealing with the terror of night missions, but the play is also about the equal moral terror of making personal choices in the howling tailwind of the emotional night – something that the English have long been very bad at.