A report from Simon Jenner after a night at a London theatre and a production of D H Lawrence Husbands and Sons.
Ben Power’s and Marianne Elliott’s decision to stage all three of Lawrence’s Eastwood colliery-centred plays simultaneously, stems from a fear that the legendary Peter Gill presentation of them as a trilogy for the first time in 1965 might now look too samey were they sequenced. Surely that notion detracts from Elliott’s clarion call to voice a National Theatre with all dialects. So one compressed-and-conflated epic of three hours is as much as London then Manchester can take of Nottingham, unlike it seems three hitherto-obscure Scottish kings in the magnificent James Plays. Royalty’s more of a draw? No danger of shifting opinion then.
That said Power’s compression and Elliott’s staging are brilliant, managing unequal lengths and thus hiatuses deftly, as the Dorfman space vibrates in Bunny Christie’s design with threatening screeches, men moving across like pit ghosts, a memorable image. It’s partly a naturalistic jigsaw of three kitchens, with family names labelled Brecht-style, and all doors, walls and coats mimed with appropriate sound-effects. Elliott wishes to avoid super-naturalism: the compromise works beautifully. Only at crucial moments do we see characters overlap, but at others when Mrs Lambert clinches her adult son Ernest too closely, Mrs Holroyd clutches her ten-year-old in an echo of smothering maternal love, providing one of the trilogy’s key themes.
These are though very different plays. A Collier’s Friday Night, the earliest, is a near-plotless slice of Son-and-Lovers sketched with gallivanting sister and son Ernest’s girlfriend Maggie whom Lydia Lambert (also Lawrence’s mother’s name) disapproves of for no good reason. Lawrence set the play so specifically in 1909 that Swinburne’s death is announced – though the group chronology states October 2011. It does establish Ernest as DH himself more specifically than his later alter egos, though there are ragged ends. Father Walter merely gets a grumbling entrance and collapses after a pit accident at the close.
The Daughter-in-Law’s pivot is Mrs Gascoigne, a widow who fears losing her two sons: shrewd but emasculated Joe and just-married Luther whose young wife Minnie brings simmering frustration with her husband’s immaturity to the boil in a memorable scene when she denounces Mrs Gascoigne in a literal blaze. Her own valuable prints – bought to spite Luther after he’s revealed he’s got another girl pregnant – are thrust into the stove by her furious husband. Joe earlier smashes her plates, an act out of true with all we learn of him. Nevertheless, love breaks out. This battle of sexes and generations was Power’s favourite till he came to read the finest piece.
The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd was written over three years: its leanness shows it. It’s almost overwhelmed at times by the material busy-ness of the other two plays, so compressed is it, so layered. Lizzie Holroyd, thirty-seven is sickened out of love by her husband’s drunken bullying, and charmed by electrician Blackmore, a decent-acting man who nevertheless persuades Lizzie to elope, together with her son Jack. Tragedy intervenes: Holroyd’s own mother rises briefly to her stature in an event that effects all three families.
Anne-Marie Duff takes smouldering Lizzie Holroyd and wrenches intensifying passion from her that explodes in an unexpected quarter. She’s magnificent, though this ensemble piece must touch on so much excellence: her husband Martin Marquez’s soused, inarticulate furies, his mother Sue Wallace, the greater matriarchal roles of Susan Brown’s seemingly-iron Mrs Gascoigne and Julia Ford’s still-sexy, slitheringly layered and lonely Lydia Lambert. Joe Armstrong as Luther pitches his hapless petulance as neatly as elder brother-fixer Joe’s Matthew Barker looks and sounds like a rock dislodged, though his accent’s lighter than the others. Louise Brealey firecrackers her way through frustrations to fervent love after much foot-stamping convincingly, even after her pinched meanness. And at one point she, Anne-Marie Duff and Susan Brown echo each other in the Lord’s Prayer, separate but together, in a plea for a community now betrayed and obliterated, as Paul Morley reminds us in an accompanying essay.
Elliot’s traversal almost convinces you that Power’s version is the one to live with, though they claim the primacy of the originals. Perhaps the community deserves more space to mourn itself – precious little attention has been given to mining either theatrically or down south. So this compromise is wonderful, though it’s wonderfully unfair too.