Altitude Sickness tells the story of D.H Lawrence’s (Robin Simpson) happiest years, when he was invited to Taos, New Mexico in 1923 by Mabel Dodge Luhan (Tanya Myers), a wealthy heiress who liked to throw parties for arty types and who was married to a Pueblo Indian (Jim Findlay). Joining them is Dorothy Brett (Ava Hunt), a partially deaf aristocratic painter. The final member of the five part cast is Lawrence’s long suffering German wife Frieda (Ulrike Johannson) who’s seen it all before and heard it all before.
The play is set around 1923 when Lawrence was penning the play Altitude for Mabel Dodge Luhan. He would never finish the play and wisely Stephen Lowe hasn’t tried to either: There is only one thing more irate than D.H Lawrence and that’s apostles of D. H Lawrence. Instead, Lowe explores what was happening around the time the opening scene was written.
The play opens with Lawrence playing charades on his own for about ten minutes. This alludes to two things: firstly, we have a play within a play and all that this may symbolise. Secondly, Lawrence has to play all of the parts and most importantly, he must win. This offers an early insight into his character. It’s a quite remarkable scene and Robin Simpson should be given some credit for pulling this off with only three rehearsal days. Fans of D.H
Lawrence will pick up on the references to characters and friends, others will simply enjoy a man in a frenzy switching costumes and accents at an alarming rate.
The three women in the play all represent different challenges to Lawrence as well as changes in his short life. He died aged 44. Frieda Lawrence steals the show, though, largely due to her deadpan responses and refusal to be impressed by her husband who has the other women gushing. At least for a while…
On being married to the notorious writer, Frieda once wrote ‘try it yourself, living with a genius, see how it is’ and this comes through. Lawrence is obsessive, didactic and at times an absolute bore with his relentless striving for perfection. Frieda on the other hand likes making dresses out of old curtains, tabbing it in front of the fire, and getting her leg over with anyone up for it. She may not have been a match for Lawrence’s intellect but she was certainly a match for him in spirit. The two of them personify defiance.
The play is as much about relationships as it is about Lawrence’s odd ideas about self-deification. They argue and fight and shout and scream and then when it all goes horribly wrong, are there for each other. Just as couples do. It was in Mexico that Lawrence had the idea for a novel called Tenderness, about a gamekeeper who has it off with a posh toff called Constance Chatterley. Lowe’s play helps show how the women in Lawrence’s life had an influence on the novel that would be published in 1928 and banned until 1960.
If you’re a fan of Lawrence then you’re in for a treat as Altitude Sickness is the first of three plays featuring Notts favourite beardo. 1 June sees Lawrence and Williams: By Night and Day with staged readings of Lawrence’s semi-autobiographical play The Fight for Barbara alongside Tennessee Williams short unfinished play The Night of the Zeppelin. The following day the Galleries of Justice host A Novel Trial: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a retelling of the court case that made it possible for everyone to swear more freely.
Altitude Sickness was performed at Djanogly Theatre, Lakeside on 17 May as part of the NEAT16 Festival.
Neat16 runs from 17 May – 12 June. See the website for a full listing of programmes