FringeReview UK 2016
D. H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover is the latest adaptation of a classic novel to arrive at Theatre Royal Brighton. This time it’s through English Touring Theatre in association with Sheffield Theatre’s Crucible Lyceum Studio. Philip Breen’s both director and adaptor. It’s designed by Laura Hopkins and winningly lit by Natasha Chivers. David Osmond’s on-stage presence as pianist and arranger is a highlight. Andrea J Cox’s sound design – bird calls and radio announcements – is evocative.
Phillip Breen’s both director and adaptor of D. H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover which comes to Theatre Royal Brighton through English Touring Theatre in association with Sheffield Theatre’s Crucible Lyceum Studio. It’s designed by Laura Hopkins and lit rather beautifully by Natasha Chivers. Andrea J Cox’s deft sound design consists of evocative bird calls and radio announcements. David Osmond’s on-stage presence as pianist and arranger is a highlight.
This has proved a season of misty-filmed novels turned into plays, occasionally strikingly successful though more often the narrative itself defeats the most energetic director and designer.
Lawrence’s novel looks sexy on paper; it’s worked on film. It’s not however one of his best; its wish-fulfilment lacks dramatic tensions an adaptor can readily draw on, except in the way films absorb novels with atmosphere and cinematography. Theatre needs something else.
Here adaptor doubles as director. Breen’s vastly experienced; perhaps here he’s too close to this obdurate un-dramatic material. Hopkins’ design too – perhaps best-suited to the studio space it began in – seems hamstrung: awkward use of a diaphanous silver backdrop curtain through much of the play compromises felicitous touches elsewhere. We’re festooned with flowers, chairs and the occasional gramophone with trumpet, as well as motorised wheelchairs. There’s a strikingly intimate use of flowers that points their symbolism as well as their names, in one delicate erotic scene. At the end of the first half the curtains are finally part-drawn to reveal a bed, simply dragged on. It seems a reveal and an opportunity lost, since there’s mere blackness behind, though used effectively later.
With playing time already ten minutes shorter than billed, there’s no doubt some moody Lawrentian pauses have been speeded up – this production could still lose twenty minutes.
The plot’s as diaphanous as the curtains but this version does usefully remind us of the first lover Lady Chatterley (Heydydd Dylan) takes after frank discussions between her and her war-incapacitated mine-owning husband suggest he’s willing to compromise and let her lead a sexual life he can’t give her, and produce a child he’ll acknowledge, so long as the father’s of good breeding. This theme ripples throughout the production, rightly given more prominence than usual.
This is the dramatist Michaelis, one of the cameos taken by Will Irvine who does a spirited job of bringing this awkward insecure writer and lover to life, obsessed that women take too long to come. Clifford Chatterley’s dislike of him isn’t wholly misguided. His wife Connie is pining, her family feel she needs to get away – her first gratuitous nude scene comes shiftless when she’s about to be medically examined, which upstages the tender end of Act One when nudity is de rigeur.
Having discussed more about progeny with Clifford Connie discovers Oliver Mellors the new gamekeeper, by wishing to share his cottage space for relaxation and then his bed. There’s much emphasis here on the original title Lawrence gave his novel, ‘Tenderness’. It’s well brought out, though on occasion at the expense of primal feeling. We’re treated too to a Venetian interlude, a flurry of letters, a return and decision.
What enlivens this production are three things. First the on-stage performance of David Osmond, who plays some slow movements of early Beethoven Sonatas, with Schubert’s Marche Militaire and Impromptus, underlining the lovers’ tender fright. In an exquisite moment, he riffs too on Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude when an expensive effect, a shower of rain gouts down: a notable coup adding cost and a few upstage umbrellas to an otherwise low-tech set.
Second, the social scenes add sometimes heft, sometimes busyness. The mining disputes with policemen freight Lawrence’s deep socialist insights of Clifford’s class and their intransigence impacting savagely then and later on his own community. It’s an able enough fleshing of Clifford’s make-up and augments his speeches on continuity, but alas these strike-scenes go nowhere. Lawrence’s backdrop wasn’t germane to his thrust here.
Connie’s family however are a fine distraction, her huffy father wanting only it seems the best sex life for her, is one of three roles taken by Ciaran McIntyre; it’s a pity the plot couldn’t have used him more. Alice Selwyn as Connie’s war-bereaved sister Alice is spirited pushy and conventional when it comes to Mellors.
Most of all the Venetian scene and the singing party erupting where Aretha Ayeh with several small parts takes her stand as a singer amidst a jazz band. This is delightful, and emerges out of that blackdrop beautifully lit and brilliantly coloured, more so even than the brief enactment in dumb show of Michaelis’ play earlier.
However the palm must go to Clifford’s Eugene O’Hare and nurse and widow Ivy Bolton, in Rachel Sanders’ exquisite rendering of a woman who remembers the touch of her husband twenty-three years dead: here you get a sliver of the thrilling early Lawrence, in her tender colloquy with Connie, where Dylan enjoys true interaction. Sanders too takes on increasing duties as Clifford’s nurse, and since O’Hare’s already proved he can generate true, strangulated emotion with terrific feeling confronting Dylan’s Connie, his responses to Sanders, ultimately breaking down in a beautiful upstage spotlight, is heartrending but also healing.
In Breen’s hands there’s not just one set of lovers here, however partly incapacitated: indeed there’s deep feeling released in this couple’s performance. The decision taken to highlight this is treasurable. One wonders if Clifford – tortured, typing, refusing to be typecast as war-emasculated cripple and even hoping to revive – is the hero. Breen makes a fine case for it.
Dylan’s interactions with Jonah Russell’s Oliver Mellors are still crucial though, and the pace of this production whilst emphasising tenderness and a sweet endearing awkwardness at first, drains their encounters of urgency, mutual lust, and dangerous transgression, as well as scant danger in the trajectory of their love.
There’s a hint he resents Connie’s more overt (even scheming) desire for a child than we’re used to, and not solely him for himself and sexual pleasure. It’s not explored with any perilous anger though and fizzles out. Only at the end with Mellors beaten up by locals enraged at his estranged wife’s wild accusations does he sulk enough to endanger anything. He’s at least allowed to articulate his singular vision: it could have scalded us more.
Russell brings a brooding stillness but no chance to edge his simmering pain: a failed marriage and class anger lend furious motive enough. He does however breathe tenderness and that’s the other discovery of this production. The normally excellent Dylan glints a joyousness that just needs urgency to fan it.
The lovers are fetching but neither rippling not earthily voluptuous enough to lend the novel’s ground-breaking shock and sex to this production. This necessarily improves in pace, and (unusually for an adaptation where it tends to work overtime) is rendered a tad static with a design seemingly framed for something more intimate; where it could work extremely well. This is ETT after all, and a certain copper bottom’s expected.
It’s a production that will grow in stature, where we must forget the accustomed sole focus on Mellors and Connie, and just as equally hope their own voltage is given more chance to leap.