This LGBT+ History Month, we’re delving into our archives to remember Ronald Eyre’s milestone production of A Patriot For Me by John Osborne in 1983.
Artistic Director Patrick Garland surprised many with his selection of the play to open the 1983 season. Based on real events, it follows the story of Colonel Alfred Redl, an Austro-Hungarian officer who is blackmailed by Tsarist Russian agents because of his homosexuality. It features a central Drag Ball scene, in which members of Viennese high society appear in drag. The subject matter had been deemed so controversial it had been refused a public licence in 1965 and hadn’t been performed since its premiere at the Royal Court which had turned itself into a private club in order to present it.
The press noted the surprising inclusion in CFT's billing:
‘a whiff of scandal is drifting through the prim cathedral city of Chichester. After years of living in the deep, safe recesses of the past[…], Chichester Festival Theatre is about to meet up with the theatrical present’.
The opening night was boycotted by CFT’s founder Leslie Evershed-Martin - the first he had missed since the Theatre's conception. Lord Bessborough, one of the founding figures of CFT, was similarly unhappy at the selection and tried to persuade Patrick Garland to not go ahead. It was a pivotal moment. Executive Producer John Gale (who had only been hired two months before) recalled:
‘Patrick phoned me and said: “I have told the Board if I can't do the play, I shall resign". I said: “That's wonderful Patrick because if you resign, I'll have to resign. This is the shortest job I have ever had in my life!’
The production went ahead and opened on 6 May, with Alan Bates in the starring role. Tickets sold extremely well, and it received enormous praise from the critics who called it ‘slick, stark and spellbinding’ and ’one of Chichester’s best plays for years’. It transferred to London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket on 2 August, and then to Los Angeles’ Amhanson Theater in October 1984. To this day, it’s fondly remembered as (in the words of one newspaper) ‘a milestone in the theatre’s history’.
A series of paintings by Leonard Rosoman, based on the original Royal Court production of the play, is on display in Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery. Read more about them here.
Read more about CFT’s history here.