Theatre: If it's courtroom drama you're after, don't go to court

'Justice,' goes the ruling, 'should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.' And if you really want to see it done well, says Paul Taylor, go to a theatre.

The pink flower she wore when she went into the witness box wasn't a smart move. Nor was the restrainedly stylish navy blue suit. I mean, a woman like her should have been aflame with scarlet at the very least. And when this 38-year-old songwriter, who had conducted an affair with a 17-year-old bit-of-rough toy boy, was acquitted of murdering her husband by mallet blows to the skull, her neighbours - pruriently agog at the trial like the rest of the nation - took their revenge by tearing out all the pink flowers from her garden. Pink had been her favourite colour. So it was only appropriate that, when the thought of her lover hanging and the public outrage and the press-hounding after her release drove this woman to suicide, a friend should have sent a pink wreath to the funeral.

It may seem a far cry from the Oresteia of Aeschylus to the case of Alma Rattenbury of the Villa Madeira, Bournemouth, the real-life subject of Terence Rattigan's last play, Cause Celebre, which is just about to be revived by Neil Bartlett at the Lyric Hammersmith. You can, however, trace a direct connection and not just because both works illustrate the inherent theatricality of trials. There, at the origins of Western drama and then again in a play about a 1930s court case, written in the mid-1970s, you find the same thing: in society's eyes, the deepest crime is being a woman.

The contemporary mind may wince a little at the gender-coding of the forces doing battle in Aeschylus' great trilogy - the matrilineal law of blood versus emergent all-male democracy and civic order, to say nothing of the casuistical, scarcely women-friendly ruling that matricide is acceptable because it is fathers who create children. It is true that some outstanding modern productions have incorporated a sense of their own unease with this. In Peter Stein's Oresteia, for example, the culminating trial was presented in an irreverent manner not unreminescent of a glitzy TV game show, and when the avenging grey-hag Furies were gagged and trussed up in purple cloths, the resulting image was pointedly ambiguous. Were they now mummified or were these chrysalises from which new life would fight its way out?

But before we congratulate ourselves too strenuously on our own progressiveness, consider the Lyric's canny publicity blurb for this new staging of Cause Celebre: "Alma Rattenbury was 38 years old. Her husband was 68. Her lover was 17. No wonder she ended up at the Old Bailey." The tone is a camp dare: come on, it says, just how unprejudiced and unshockable are you, really?

The first words of the play are from the Clerk of the Court: "Alma Victoria Rattenbury, you are charged with the murder of Francis Mawson Rattenbury on March 28, 1935. Are you guilty or not guilty?" Murder, though, is a side issue: what is fundamentally on trial here is female sexuality. She may have been innocent of the killing but it was for being, in their eyes, an evil moral influence that the press and the crowds hounded her. Never mind that she had initially confessed to the murder to save Wood, her lover, thus evincing rather more than mere carnal appetite for him. Never mind that it was to protect her own young sons that she changed her plea. Also forget that no one thought it odd for the deceased man to have married a woman 30 years his junior.

No, it suited the media and the Tory MP for Bournemouth to present Wood as a preyed-upon working-class innocent, one of our boys. Rattigan's play does not shirk the problem of Alma Rattenbury's larger responsibility and responsibilities, but it complicates our understanding of them by counterpointing her affair with the relationship between a sexually repressed lady juror and the (also 17-year-old) public school son she passionately loves to the point of driving him to a prostitute and the clap clinic.

There are two extremes to which trials on stage and in films can be pushed. One is the phantasmagoric end where everything seems to be taking place in the skull of the accused, dramatising the inflamed subjective nightmare of being found out or of having to account for oneself to an inscrutable court. John Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence is an outstanding example of this with its wrecked, womanising, self-lacerating misogynistic anti- hero, a solicitor who puts himself into the (solipsistic) dock.

When the National revived that play five years ago, much was made of the fact that the production had a female director, Di Trevis. A woman directing John Osborne seemed to strike some as a startling incongruity. Rather like hearing that an unrepentant Nazi was putting on a revival of The Sound of Music. Admirably, Trevis refrained from giving the proceedings an unduly feminist slant, though at the end she did allow herself the unnervingly effective stroke of showing all the play's women now ganged up in the jury box.

The opposite extreme - of which the Tricyle's Nicolas Kent, with his productions of The Nuremberg Trials and Srebrenica, focusing on the 1996 Hague War Crimes Tribunal, has of late proved himself a master - is to stage a straight edited transcript of an actual trial. The tremendous power of Srebrenica, which eventually transferred to the Olivier, stemmed from the tension in it between the humdrum and the horrific. Appalling atrocities (the busing of 5,000 Muslims out of a UN enclave to be slaughtered by the awaiting Bosnian Serb soldiers) coolly came to light in a studiedly low-key, realistic re-creation of a courtroom where people paused to consult facts and notebooks or to check that a set of headphones was working.

It was a reminder that the proceedings of a real court can be positively anti-dramatic: the drama was in the wholly unsensational revelation of the unspeakable. And there was, of course, the compression of the editing. By contrast, as Thomas Sutcliffe remarked in this newspaper during the Louise Woodward trial, for all the reporters' resort to theatre-derived vocabulary ("little actress", the inevitable "Greek tragedy"), there were actually very few "dramatic" moments in the protractedly televised proceedings. The minutiae of the scientific evidence numbed the mind.

Cause Celebre offers in part - the whole adds up to so much more - the good old satisfactions of a third kind of courtroom play, the kind where the trial is a heightened metaphor for theatrical experience in general, ie prurient observation. As Neil Bartlett says, "We go to the theatre to see and hear people do and say things that nice normal people like ourselves don't do and say." Now what does that remind one of? Bartlett has been on several research trips to the Old Bailey and is struck by it as the "kind of club of people who take their flasks and their sandwiches and go to all the trials and discuss previous cases. They are a bit like the people who always used to queue for the slip seats at Covent Garden."

Bartlett stresses the uneasy complicity you're bound to feel. One mistake Alma made was not to give the public what they wanted. She never broke down - "and, of course," the director adds, "at some level, the reason you come to see Cause Celebre is because you think that, at certain points, you are going to see the leading actress crack". If Rattigan's play and Alma deny an audience that particular pleasure, they afford many alternative ones in a piece that is "unusually frank by the standards of any period" and that blasts apart the conventional courtroom format. As Irving Wardle wrote in his Times review of the 1977 West End premiere: "The play offers a perfectly coherent picture, smashed to fragments and regrouped into a mosaic for the sake of maximum suspense and maximum revelation of character." With jump-cuts, split-screen effects and multiple flashbacks (to, say, a drunken Alma dancing to a record of one of her own songs and making a pass at a policeman in a room spattered with the blood of her dead husband), the play is formally daring and very acute about double standards. Bartlett points out that it's full of scenes of dressing and undressing - a juxtaposed pair of sequences, for example, shows how "there's much more image manipulation" on the part of the two male lawyers robing and talking about rouging over the facial effects of a late night than there is in Alma's ponderings with her female guard about how to dress for the trial.

Indeed, you sometimes feel there should be a rule of blanket nudity in courts, but that would simply set up its own hierarchy of prejudices. The well-hung would have been hanged or let off hanging according to the envy or contented voyeurism of the judge and jury. Of course, clothes are much more significant for a woman in the circumstances. Bartlett draws a parallel between Alma and Louise Woodward, caught in a sartorial double- bind. "The Alice band and the hair swept back like a sort of junior Sloane Ranger, well, the nicety and propriety of appearance could be seen as further proof of duplicity. Similarly with Alma, wearing a smart navy blue suit set up a reaction that she had no right to wear such a garment."

Rattigan is a (in his day, unavowedly) gay playwright noted for using theatrical convention as the Trojan horse wherein he smuggled a passionate critical analysis of English repression on to the West End stage. Here, there's a nakedness that Bartlett ascribes to the fact that Rattigan's mother, to whom he showed all his scripts and who accompanied him to first nights, had died, lifting that line of censorship from him. He also knew that he himself was dying and that this would be his last work. With his flair for making period pieces resonate with contemporary concerns (and there are a host of still-burning issues in this play - the age of consent, the use of children in trials, the effect of media coverage on the outcome etc), Bartlett looks set to do Rattigan and Alma justice.

'Cause Celebre' previews from tomorrow, opens Tuesday, Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, King Street, London W6 (0181-741 2311)

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