The first few scenes of Terence Rattigan's Ross in this rare revival are an absolute revelation. Here we see TE Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, in the RAF depot where he has enlisted under the assumed name of Ross. He quickly comes up on a charge for gross insubordination when he says he has been to dinner with "Lord and Lady Astor, Mr and Mrs George Bernard Shaw…and the Archbishop of Canterbury."
His commanding officer naturally assumes that this humble aircraftman is being ironic; of course the joke is that the statement is true. Lawrence is hiding his true self from the world, and seeking a refuge for himself, wracked by guilt about his behaviour and his nature. Yet he simply can't fit in. As Joseph Fiennes plays the scenes with a kind of languid, damaged gentleness, you find yourself thinking 'why on earth don't we see this play more often? It's a lost gem."
Then the action in Adrian Noble's production for the Chichester Festival Theatre switches from 1922 back to the glory years of the Arab Revolt, in 1916-18 when Lawrence corralled the Arab tribes into driving the Turks out of the Middle East. Suddenly you realise exactly why this 1960 play hasn't been seen for so long: it is a mess.
Where the RAF scenes reveals Rattigan's unparalleled ability to suggest suppressed emotion, the main action is of the slightly plodding biographical variety, with people pretending to be Arabs shouting volubly, people pretending to be British army officers barking a lot and great gobbets of script that simply tell you what has been going on off stage. Its origins as a film show — it sprawls across the years, with the action stretching from Lawrence's audacious capture of Aqaba through his capture and degradation by the Turks to his final 'triumph' when the Arabs capture Damascus but are betrayed by diplomatic deals.
Noble does what he can. William Dudley's pillared, sandy set provides a sandy arena for the action, with desks for the scenes back at British HQ and gaudy tents floating down to suggest the desert. The action moves along at a fluid pace, playing up Lawrence's homosexual longing for his desert bodyguards, and his increasing distance from his British commanders. But some things are horribly misjudged: the critical scene where Lawrence is beaten and sodomised by the Turks is oddly and cartoonishly played.
On the other hand, Paul Freeman's General Allenby probes behind the man's bluster to reveal the sharp mind beneath; his encounters with Lawrence have a welcome crackle, a sense of two brave men engaging. But the principal reason to see Ross is Fiennes giving a performance of concentrated stillness and real charisma that consistently manages to suggest the tragic conflict in the soul of this lonely British hero.
Ross runs at Chichester Festival Theatre until 25 June.