FringeReview UK 2018
This revival directed by Jack Gamble with Dippermouth concentrates the space in Arcola’s Studio 2 in Louie Whitemore’s set, with nothing but a bare deal table, wooden floorboards, a dresser with some plates and at one end – it’s in the round – a stove and a place of exit. Geoff Hense makes oppressive tenebrous use of those candles. Dinah Mullen’s sound of sudden colliery noises off punctuates the political silence and gathering strike. Penny Dyer’s voice coaching ensures no-one makes heavy vowels and there’s a careful attention to Minnie. Till June 23rd.
The Daughter-in-Law’s last major outing was very different. Synchronised in 2014-15 at the National’s Dorfman with A Collier’s Saturday Night (1909) and The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd (1910-11) under the collective title of Husbands and Sons there was an implication (not by adaptor Ben Power) that peoples’ attention spans would have shrunk from the trilogy’s first (normally sequenced) outing by Peter Gill in 1967. A trilogy might be too much. This, after the very recent NT heft of Rona Munro’s James Plays trilogy. Power wanted to explore the interconnectedness, though this meant compressions. It’s fascinating, virtuosic, and bear revival. But The Daughter-in-Law remains the masterpiece of three masterly plays.
This revival thrillingly directed by Jack Gamble with Dippermouth concentrates the space in Arcola’s Studio 2 in Louie Whitemore’s set, with nothing but a bare deal table, wooden floorboards, a dresser with some plates and at one end – it’s in the round – a stove and a place of exit. Otherwise the studio’s main entrance suffices. It’s intimate; you can smell the cooking and snuffed candles. Geoff Hense makes oppressive tenebrous use of those candles and the lowering overhead gloom of miners’ cottages. Dinah Mullen’s sound of sudden colliery noises off punctuates the political silence and gathering strike.
Lawrence’s themes in the three plays returns to the impossible wrench of love between mothers and sons, husband and wives, and the men’s incapacity to express – or exorcise – it. The damage of complicity, subordination, jealousy and silence cricks the growth of anything healthy. It’s pretty well loaded against mother in two of the three above-mentioned plays, and in two others the wives as well as inarticulate husbands. So when these themes converge uniquely in The Daughter-in-Law, the richest, most dramatic storm is released and Lawrence makes full weather of it. It’s unsurprisingly the latest-written of this early work, in 1913. Covering the February 1912 miner’s strike adds another politicised dimension, with a historical edge again unique in Lawrence’s plays.
It’s there at the outset as youngest son truculent clever Joe Gascoyne (Matthew Biddulph) lumbers in with his broken arm having failed to swing sickness pay. he’d been larking and the manger fond out. Veronica Roberts’ Mrs Gascoyne chides him with adamantine justice. But it’ll go hard on a family relying on labour and without fourteen shillings (worth about £55, little short of UC now) the Gascoynes are nearer starvation rations.
The elder brother Luther– and its important to realize other much elder brothers are out of this possessive picture – has just married Minnie, six weeks ago. Nevertheless as Minnie points out he’s in thrall to his mother and as Joe and Mrs Gascoyne discover through Tessa Bell-Briggs’ Mrs Purdy, he’s about to find out he’ll father a child with Bertha, his previous, very pliant girlfriend. She’s twenty-three and should have known better.
The scene between Mrs Purdy and Mrs Gascoyne with Joe’s shrewd egging-on isn’t one of violent confrontation. There’s an everyday transgression, and Bertha will need around £40 (nimbly translated as £3,127 today!). Mrs Purdy, surprisingly, is the one who’s anxious not to damage the new marriage between Luther and Minnie, and with Joe onside Mrs Gascoyne whose animosity towards tuck-up Minnie is palpable till it’s vocal, a civilised working-out is arranged. Minnie had more or les proposed marriage after apparently exhausting all other options and waited years. Mrs Gascoyne will enjoy this.
Nevertheless the solution would have been the envy of more sanctimonious middle-class communities. Lawrence’s adeptness at showing the realistic assessments, lack of vitriol, and all-round recognition that a problem has to be overcome is both tender and tough-minded. Mrs Purdy’s bid to go round when both the marrieds are in.
The first explosion’s a dinner plate. This is mysteriously via peacemaker Joe, always welcome round flirty Minnie; she’s safely married so can enjoy it but in this production it’s almost insolent in front of Luther. Ellie Nunn’s Minnie and Biddulph make a plausible couple. Harry Heppie’s Luther just watches. After his first act, Joe smashes another plate. Minnie’s outraged and upset: Joe’s the man she looks up to, at least here. The one with ‘go’ which Luther singularly seems to lack.
In fact Joe’s intentions towards Minnie are tender-hearted and just. He wants her out of the way whilst Mrs Purdy arrives, so she need never know. The chemistry between all three is beautifully pitched, just as the bartering between Roberts and Bell-Briggs earlier, with Biddulph chirpily, puckishly common to both.
There’s another similar scene with different ends but a similar effect of clearing. Lawrence’s has a shrewd sense of the uses of art, and of its destruction beneath the more elemental forces which are sometimes choked by them. Here he literally tears up the rule-book.
Heppie’s Luther and Nunn’s Minnie centre this only after an enormous quasi-Oedipal confrontation, first with each other, tearing off comparable amounts to any famous warring couple, with Nunn’s fury ratcheting up Heppie’s sullenness. Then after Minnie’s departure and return days later, the subsequent triangle with Roberts, where Biddulph’s Joe is seen as suddenly more weak and dependant than his brother. And it’s only in convert with others around that Luther’s able to act almost violently. It’s one of those great dramatic flip-overs that begin to conclude this extraordinary work.
Two more climactic scenes follow. After Minnie’s finished her tirade at Luther and his mother, these are surprising in their quietness set against the intrusive noise of striking, a reverse contrast to the earlier scenes. The surprising scene is the almost tender rapprochement between Mrs Gascoyne and Minnie, where Roberts is able to conclude:
It’s risky work, handlin’ men, my lass. For when a woman builds her life on men, either husbands or sons, she builds on summat as sooner or alter brings the house down crash on her head – yi, she does.
Nunn’s wonderful as the passionate, frustrated, proud and loving wife never given a chance to demonstrate her love. Her sudden private bursts of grief when she’s sure no-one can see her are heartbreaking. she illumines as much as any glowing candle. Heppie ruses from his depths to elemental displays of anger and then collapses into a new kind of eloquence. Biddulph’s commanding chirpiness suddenly breaks, literally crestfallen. Bell-Briggs’ wonderfully wry steadiness is the only constant as even Roberts moves from quasi-authoritarian care to a rapprochement that’s quietly thrilling, Nunn matching and feeding her response.
This is as pitch-perfect as we’re likely to get for a very long time. Penny Dyer’s voice coaching ensures no-one makes heavy vowels and there’s a careful attention to Minnie as from a slightly different class, like Lawrence’s mother, with ideas of herself, as Lawrence states. And why not? Ideas and instincts at war drive this play out of its apparent bounds but not out of Eastwood. And its aftermath is a hushed miracle. You must see it.