New play reopens old Tory scandals

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Two Conservative scandals are at the heart of a West End play opening this week. The play deals with the Profumo scandal and the affair between Lady Dorothy Macmillan and Lord Boothby. David Lister, Arts News Editor, reports on the first play to look at the former Prime Minister's wife's infidelity.

The cast is starry, the playwright hugely acclaimed and the subject matter sensitive. The love child that Macmillan's wife Dorothy had with Boothby has never before been the subject of a show in the West End of London.

And in A Letter Of Resignation opening tomorrow at the Comedy Theatre, it is far from being a matter of titillation. Hugh Whitemore, the playwright who is also responsible for adapting A Dance To The Music Of Time for television, attempts to show that Macmillan could not deal with the Profumo scandal in 1963 because of his own troubled history.

The play will imply that Profumo had a rough deal because Macmillan, the then Prime Minister, could not handle the subject of sex following his wife's affair which produced an illegitimate child, Sarah, who died in the Sixties.

Edward Fox stars as Macmillan, and Clare Higgins, a brilliant actress from the RSC and National Theatre, as Lady Dorothy. On its pre-West End run, Macmillan's granddaughter came to see it and told Fox afterwards she had enjoyed it and was not offended.

She also told him a story about Macmillan entertaining Charles de Gaulle at his home and de Gaulle so offending the gamekeeper that the gamekeeper said: "Either he goes or I go." De Gaulle left at the end of the weekend. This was quickly incorporated into the play.

Hugh Whitemore spent a year researching the play and talked to people with close links to both the Profumo and Macmillan stories, though he says he will not divulge any names.

He said yesterday: "I try to link up change in the body politic with change in a man's life.

"The Profumo affair awakened in Macmillan dreadful memories of Dorothy's affair with Boothby which started in 1929. The affair continued for 30 years, and shortly after she told Macmillan he had a nervous breakdown in 1931.

"I'm not doing something sensational here. Macmillan didn't deal with Profumo very well and I'm suggesting that it was because it was all too close to home. People knew that sex was a subject you didn't discuss with the Prime Minister. Had he been more forthright with Profumo, they might have been able to clear it up.

"I very very much hope John Profumo will come to see it, because he did get a raw deal and he is mentioned with sympathy and understanding."

Profumo does not actually appear in the play, which moves between 1963 and 1929, but both Harold and Dorothy Macmillan are shown as being pro- Profumo.

Edward Fox said yesterday: "You see in this play just what a tragedy occurred. And you feel that what happened to these people could just as easily have happened to people in the audience.

"I think we haven't seen before how tragic the events of the Profumo situation were and how human and understandable."