Posts Tagged ‘D H Lawrence’

I wish working class playwright D H Lawrence would come into fashion like middle class playwright Terence Rattigan has, so that we could see more of his work. The polymath novelist / poet / playwright wrote eight plays, only two of which were performed in his lifetime. The last we saw in London was a ‘mash up’ of his three early mining village plays, of which this is one, as Husbands & Sons at the National a couple of years ago, but revivals of his plays are few and far between.

It’s written in strong local dialect, so you have to put in a bit of work, but you do get into the rhythm of the language, which is an essential component of the piece, fairly quickly. It takes place in family homes represented evocatively in Louie Whitemore’s design by just four pieces of furniture on a platform, with the audience in two rows on four sides, and this intimacy results in extraordinary engagement, five actors shining in their respective roles. The backdrop is the 1912 miners strike and we’re in the village of Eastwood on the Nottinghamshire / Derbyshire border. This is the world of D H Lawrence’s youth. A matriarchal society, but a man’s world.

Luther, in his early thirties, has recently married Minnie, who left life in service to do so. They are late to marriage because of his hesitancy in proposing long before, and perhaps because his mother has been holding him back. His younger brother Joe is still at home. Neighbour Mrs Purdy visits mother and younger son to inform them Luther has fathered a child with her daughter and suggests money could buy their silence. Mother, somewhat bitter at the loss of her elder son, not keen on her daughter-in-law and the inheritance she brought with her, refuses, so Mrs Purdy visits Luther.

It’s a brilliant play with excellent characterisations, superbly structured. It’s not just a personal story, but also social history and sociology, examining the roles and relationships between the sexes at that time, and archetypal mother and son relationships. Harry Hepple is simply terrific as Luther, torn between wife and mother, struggling to assert himself, clumsily when he does. Ellie Nunn is superb as a feisty Minnie, defiant and determined, but ultimately loving. Veronica Roberts is wonderful as the boys’ mum, worshiping them and pampering them. Matthew Biddulph is great as the more immature Joe, winding others up without considering the consequences and cheekily flirting with Minnie. Tessa Bell-Briggs gives a fine performance as Mrs Purdy. A brilliant cast.

Jack Gamble’s finely detailed staging is impeccable. This is an unmissable revival which I can only hope leads to many more.

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Husbands & Sons is actually three plays by the very prolific early 20th century novelist, poet and playwright D H Lawrence – The Daughter-in-Law, The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd and A Collier’s Friday Night; his first three, but never produced in his lifetime. They’re all set in the Nottinghamshire mining village of Eastwood, where Lawrence was brought up, but that’s really the only connection. What Ben Power has done is to create a ‘mash-up’. They’re interwoven to create one play rather than played as three separate plays and it works brilliantly.

The Holroyds, Lamberts and Gascoignes are all mining families. Lizzie Holroyd is trapped in a marriage to philandering drunk Charlie, whose young son even hates him. Lydia Lambert is married to a dinosaur who gives her a portion of his wages for which he expects her to live in slavery, keeping home and bring up two children. Minnie Gascoigne has only recently married Luther when its revealed he’s fathered a child by a neighbour’s daughter.

It’s an evocative picture of life in this early 20th century mining community, largely from the perspective of the women at home, and you can tell its writer knew this world very well indeed. Lizzie and Lydia have better relationships with their sons than husbands (and daughter, in Lydia’s case), Luther and his brother Joe are closer to their mother than Luther is to his wife and Charlie’s mother Sue looms large too. Lydia (Lawrence’s mother’s name) is devoted to her son Ernest, an autobiographical character I suspect, who is educating himself to escape this world (he even, somewhat ironically, calls his mother mater) which sets him against his deeply traditional dad, whilst his sister Nellie is destined to stay. Lizzie can barely hide her attraction to local electrician Blackmore, who is pursuing her.

The footprint of the ground floor of all three homes is laid out in the Dorfman Theatre, with the audience on all sides, and in a clever twist we change seats for each act. As it begins, a huge rectangular lighting rig rises like a giant mining cage and underfloor lights represent the underground world. The rooms are realistic but the actors mime actions like putting on coats and opening doors. I thought Bunny Christie’s design and Marianne Elliott’s staging were stunning.

The big draw acting wise is Anne-Marie Duff, and she’s great, but it’s a faultless ensemble with a whole load of really fine performances. The whole thing is faithful to the writing and the setting, yet inventive in adaptation and staging. Only the National could do this. A theatrical feast.


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