Ross, Chichester Festival Theatre.

Joseph Fiennes as Lawrence Credit: Johan Persson

Adrian Noble’s stunningly visual production focuses heavily on the emotional journey of T.E Lawrence throughout his escapades across the Middle East. Whilst the political backdrop of the period is perhaps slightly underplayed, the drama and intensity of Lawrence’s experiences provides an evocative performance for its audience. The structure of the narrative works in flashback, the action set in 1922 bookends the main body of the plot allowing us to meet Lawrence in the RAF, as Aircraftman Ross, before transporting us to the desert for his epic adventure.

Joseph Fiennes, last seen on stage in Chichester Festival Theatre’s 2009 production of Cyrano de Bergerac, brings a thoughtful grace to the central role. His detailed characterisation reflecting the contrasts between Lawrence and Ross, is key to the success of the production, and Fiennes attacks the role with full emotional range. When we first meet Ross, he is a fascinating combination of insolence and anxiety. He is socially awkward, yet there is an undeniable arrogance, desperate to reveal itself, which manifests in poor behaviour in the Royal Air Force. In these early stages of the play, Rattigan’s beautifully crafted text reveals Lawrence’s clear intellect and wit, and Fiennes’ clipped glib delivery brings out the obvious humour in the situation as he instantly proves himself superior to his seniors. However moments later, we compare this persona to a man who is awkward amongst his peers, afraid to be touched and suffers from the tremors of what he claims is a touch of malaria. For me there was a hint of trauma right from the start which was conveyed with real sensitivity. Once we travel back to his time in the desert, a different man is revealed; one with passion and charisma, able to persuade anyone to do his bidding, a man able to mask arrogance with utter confidence and self belief. This persona is a world away from the timid soul Fiennes presents at the start of the play. Indeed he packs his most gut wrenching emotional punch towards the end of the piece, conveying Lawrence's psychological crumbling against the Turkish military governor. This personal vulnerability is one of Fiennes’ real strengths as a performer, and when combined with the range of emotions in this piece, he is at his best in ‘Ross’.

One should also mention Michael Feast as the Turkish military governor, an unusual role for him. Adrian Noble has implemented an interesting persona here; through the first act the character felt almost comedic in its stereotyping and, not knowing the play, I was unsure of how to perceive him. However, in his final confrontation with Lawrence towards the end, the horrific reality and hypocrisy of what this man was is articulated magnificently by Feast, and it becomes clear one has been lulled into a false sense of security, making the latter moments all the more traumatic to witness. Paul Freeman as Allenby and Peter Polycarpou as the Sheik serve as an excellent juxtaposition of the differences between men of rank in both time periods, across both cultures.

William Dudley’s set served the epic setting well. On entering the auditorium, the space appeared vast; a rough terrain floor with huge classical pillars rising endlessly upwards. We are immediately plunged into Arabia; a world of desert, sweltering heat and arid open space; but when the action begins, 1922 is created through the use of doors emerging through traps, and fluorescent lighting lowered from the flies. As we approach the flashback, a large screen filled with projection is used to transport us back in time. This seemed to be a cultural reference to “Lawrence of Arabia”, a film we recognise as a “big screen” epic, and as a reminder of Lawrence as a figure of public notoriety. The device is clever in theory, however I did feel that the presence of the old school projector downstage centre did, at times, block some of the action. During a scene in Act Two where a large map of Arabia is displayed whilst a scene takes place on a chaise-longue, I found the presence of the projector distracting, a pity during a moment containing important information for plot progression. This issue of the projector however, was extremely minor when compared to the impact of set and lighting combining to create the striking Arabian backdrop, complete with tents and lamps to emphasise the traditions of Middle Eastern culture. When contrasted with the angular doors, harsh lighting and wooden Chippendale furniture of the RAF base, the cultural differences of the worlds Lawrence inhabited were almost cinematic in their vividness.

A scene from Ross Credit: Johan Persson

Paul Pyant’s lighting give the set a real sense of atmosphere, paying particular attention to the setting and central themes of the plot. The warm sand and neutral colour scheme add light and warmth to the desert, however the constant shadows lurking upstage remind us of the complexities of the central character; his hidden identity and concealed sexuality, whilst additionally giving a context to the lingering army, hiding from the enemy. Paul Groothuis’ sound design and Mia Soteriou’s music pulls us from 1920s popular classics to the mysterious tones of Arabian music, enhancing the juxtaposition between the two locations in what amounts to a very elegant and dramatic overall design concept. 

‘Ross’ is a fascinating look at the extraordinary life of T.E Lawrence which is made extremely accessible in this production. The focus Noble has placed on the emotional journey of the character strikes at the emotional core, making this epic the stuff of empathy, not merely a fact filled biopic.