D.H Lawrence wrote eight full length plays during his short life, as well as two incomplete works. Only two of these scripts made it onto the stage during his lifetime. George Bernard Shaw would comment “I wish I could write such dialogue. With mine I always hear the sound of the typewriter.” These sentiments were endorsed in Geoffrey Trease’s biography The Phoenix and the Flame (1970), where Trease noted Lawrence’s ear for dialogue ran throughout his work. This “ear for dialogue” was superbly brought to life in Phillip Breen’s bold adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, performed at the Sheffield Crucible.
Lawrence has been unfairly represented in the media as the poster boy for smut. His novels, poems and paintings all experienced censorship with some of his books being burnt. No wonder he cherished the image of a phoenix rising from the flames. Simplistic readings of his work have led to moral panics and have been used to subvert the real essence of his work – that modernity, largely represented by the dehumanising aspects of industrialisation, has knocked man off his natural course and led to a disconnection with his immediate environment. Given this, I was intrigued to see what version of Lawrence would come though on the stage, particularly as there are three versions of the novel that made it possible for everyone to swear more freely.
Phillip Breen’s adaptation firmly draws the audience to the novel’s original title, Tenderness. The focus here is on relationships, in all of their various forms. Yes, there’s lots of sex on stage but this is treated sensitively, capturing the passion, humour, and awkwardness of bodies clattering together.
The adaptation starts on a barren stage with Lady C (Hedydd Dylan) removing rags covering up pieces of furniture and props. She will be removing much more as the play progresses. This is a minimal set so that our complete focus is on the narrative. When we are later taken out to Mellors (Jonah Russell) hut in the forest, flowers are spread in circles around the stage to signify a new space. A pianist (David Osmond) draws out themes of tenderness through some beautiful pieces of music that help enhance the mood and there are some noisy interludes in the form of bawdy songs from the 1920s such as Masculine Women! Masculine Men! (“Masculine women, feminine men/Which is the rooster? Which is the hen?” “Knickers and trousers baggy and wide/Nobody knows who’s walking inside”)
When we first encounter Clifford Chatterley (Eugene O’Hara) he’s being washed by Lady C on a table. This reminded me of those other great Eastwood plays where women wash the bodies of dead husbands killed down the pit. James Moran recently noted in The Theatre of D.H Lawrence that “Lawrence gives domestic drudgery a kind of dignity by paying close attention to it, with all of its rhythms and conflicts.” Lady C may not suffer the drudgery of those living in poverty within mining communities, but it’s a nod to domestic drudgery all the same.
As Clifford is already in a wheelchair we don’t get the back story of him as an able bodied man heading off to war. This works well. Clifford is also given a more compassionate portrayed than in the novel. There’s a brilliant scene towards the end when he turns to his nurse Ivy Bolton (Rachel Sanders) for comfort. You get a real sense of both his physical and emotional impotence when he attempts to kiss her and instead buries his head between her breasts. He is like a child in desperate need of affection, rather than an adult after a meaningful relationship.
Lady C is accurately represented as a sexually progressive individual, getting it on with the Irish playwright Michaelis (Will Irvine) early on. This is an important part of the novel as it enables Lady C to recognise that Michaelis is a slave to success like the rest of her inner circle, and unable to give her the emotional and intellectual satisfaction she needs. In this, and other areas, the director has been spot on with what he’s kept and left out. Likewise, Breen has wisely shifted Mellors comments about his ex-wife Bertha Coutts ‘bringing herself off’ and given these lines to Michaelis. Breen has also wisely cut out Lawrence’s odd descriptions of female masturbation: “the old rampers have beaks between their legs, and they tear at you with it till you’re sick. Self! Self! Self! All self!… tear, tear, tear, as if she had no sensation in her except in the top of her beak.”
Mellors and Lady C spend quite a lot of time on stage naked and this is absolutely vital. It makes them vulnerable, imperfect, awkward and innocent. This enabled for some fun scenes, such as the naming of genitals (John Thomas) which brought great laughter from the crowd, flashing, and the placing of flowers over body parts in what felt like a pagan ritual. They even pull off a triple sex move without a hint of embarrassment, and have time to do circuits of the stage naked in the rain.
Throughout the production tenderness oozes on the stage. We feel the frustrations of partners poorly matched and are left with the hope that they may be able to find a resolution. The love Lady C and Mellors have for each other, as well as the growing bond between Clifford and Ivy, is superbly juxtaposed against scenes of riots and demonstrations as the outside world protests for better working conditions in a post war world. It’s no wonder Lawrence found sanctuary in the intimate silence of two bodies.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover runs from 22 September – 15 October 2016 at Sheffield Lyceum
- The Guardian “Passionate play loses Lawrence’s politics”
- Telegraph “A Lady Chatterley that’s explicit, tasteful and tender”
- British Theatre Guide