Exploring Rattigan's masterpiece at the CFT

Aden Gillet
Aden Gillet

Aden Gillett was in the film version of The Winslow Boy “500 years ago… not that that helps! It was a different part… and film is a very different thing,” says Aden who this time round will play Arthur Winslow himself, the father who embarks on an extraordinary campaign for justice for his son.

Terence Rattigan’s play is at Chichester Festival Theatre until February 17.

After young cadet Ronnie Winslow is expelled from the Royal Naval College for stealing a five-shilling postal order, his entire family is pulled apart by the repercussions of the charge. Set against the values of 1910s Edwardian London, the Winslow family fight to clear his name or face social ostracism as the case becomes a national scandal.

Based on a real-life event, The Winslow Boy is a “courageous and often delicately-humorous window into the class and political hypocrisy of the time”… so the show’s producers promise us.

Rather more interestingly, Aden is promising a play with profound resonances for our own time: “Arthur Winslow is incredibly driven. Most people would have given up. But the real Arthur died just after the court case. He was hugely driven by his concept of justice and by his concept of human rights… eternal things. I really think it is Rattigan’s masterpiece… and it really does seem profoundly relevant to now, this point in our history right now where so many very small people are being (crushed by) the rest of the world.”

Aden puts in it the context of Trump and what Trump is doing to the small guy: “I really do think the play will strike all sorts of chords with people now.”

As for the 1999 film version, in which Nigel Hawthorne played Arthur and in which Aden played John Watherstone, Aden remembers a strong movie directed by David Mamet: “And the combination of Terence Rattigan and David Mamet was quite extraordinary, but Mamet was passionate about the piece. But that was definitely a film, and this is definitely a play… and the play has got a lot of emotional heft in the way it pans out.

“We had a guy into rehearsals the other day who was Rattigan’s biographer, the guy who wrote the definitive book about him, and he described the challenge it was for Rattigan. It was set in 1912 even though he wrote it in the 1940s, and he turned this court case into a drawing-room drama. There are no absolute heroes in it. All the characters are flawed. In the actual case, there was a whiff that they had been picked on because they were Catholics, but Rattigan doesn’t run with that. He goes with this great sense of justice.

“And it is this idea of the small people being ridden rough-shod over, and Arthur Winslow won’t have it. He takes on everyone. He takes on the government. It’s extremely brave but slightly fool-hardy. He was an unremarkable man, but when his son is wrongly accused, he fights for his son’s honour.

“I hope that people will see it as this beautiful tragic struggle with so many sacrifices along the way. Even the son loses interest in the end. When the verdict comes through, the son is at the cinema, but for the father, it means absolutely everything.

“I don’t have that mad drive myself. I thought when they offered me this part that this guy is rather out of my usual line and that maybe they should give him to someone else, but really it just became a challenge, to play someone so very different to what I usually do. And I think The Winslow Boy really is Rattigan’s masterpiece.”