Review – Pie and Peas with DH Lawrence at The Grand Pavilion.

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After being booted out of Cornwall in 1917, DH Lawrence was reliant on the generosity of friends to put him up while he got back on his feet. By 1918 he was in such dire poverty that Arnold Bennett secretly gave his agent Pinker £25 as a crisis fund, knowing Lawrence hated charity. It was these circumstances that led Lawrence and his wife Frieda to take residence of Mountain Cottage, Middleton-by-Wirksworth from 2 May 1918. This was the first time the Lawrences had settled in the Midlands for six years, affording him the opportunity to reconnect with family and old neighbours. He lasted one year.

Lawrence’s time in the Midlands is the main focus of Pie and Peas with DH Lawrence, an amateur dramatic performance that sketches out key elements of his life. As you would expect from a production by the Wirksworth Community Theatre, space is given to Lawrence’s time in the surrounding area. Therefore the performance includes the reading of three of his letters to Katherine Mansfield during the brutal winter of 1918. Mansfield was married to the writer and critic John Middleton Murry. The two couples had briefly lived near each other in Cornwall during the war in an early attempt at Rananim, but it didn’t work out. By 1919 Murry was editing the Athenaeum which featured many of the Bloomsbury Group. This should have been an opportunity to rebuild their friendship while, more importantly, generating a bit of income for Lawrence through commissions. Unfortunately it didn’t work out and it would lead to a simmering mistrust between the two that would intensify over time. This wasn’t touched on in the play because it would have over complicated the narrative. Instead we are reminded that Lawrence was a prolific letter writer and who his circle of friends were at the time.

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Lawrence’s Wintry Peacock was inspired by his time spent in Derbyshire and is partly performed, whereby a suspicious wife asks a man who can speak French to translate the contents of a letter to her husband. This places the man in an awkward situation as he has to decide whether to tell her the truth or spare her feelings. Given the audience were privy to the contents of the letter, this worked very well on stage.

We were also treated to both the reading of War Baby and the song War Baby by Carol Fieldhouse. This poem, which was originally published in the English Review, coincided with the birth of Catherine Carswell’s son, John, on 30 May 1918. Lawrence dedicated the poem to Carswell’s new offspring.

It was during a brief stay in Ripley that Lawrence wrote two short stories about childhood pets, Rex (dog) and Adolf (rabbit). Adolf is the tale of a mischievous pet rabbit that causes chaos in a family home, leaving droppings on saucers while helping himself to the sugar pot. In performing this, the producers celebrated Lawrence’s love of nature and wildlife and led nicely onto a reading of Snake. It also helped touch on another theme that had been explored in the opening half an hour, Lawrence’s parents.

Lawrence had an indifferent relationship with his father, depicting him as an ignorant brute in his third novel Sons and Lovers (1913). He was very much influenced by his overbearing mother who aspired for more and didn’t want her kids going down the pit. Arthur Lawrence may have been down the pit since he was seven but he was also a very charismatic and caring individual. This is perfectly drawn out in Adolf when the father finds one surviving rabbit from a family of dead rabbits. He brings the one surviving (but unmoving) rabbit home in order to nurture it back to life. Whereas Lydia Lawrence is aghast at the havoc the rabbit causes, Arthur prioritises life. Lawrence realised years later that he’d been overly harsh in his portrayals of his father and this is noted in the play when a young Lawrence announces if he’d written Sons and Lovers when he was older the father would have been presented differently. Thankfully he didn’t.

In addition to life in “the country of my heart” the play also explores the Lady C trial, censorship of his paintings, and his relationship with his German wife Frieda. This means that other elements, such as his savage pilgrimage, are omitted. But this works very well, providing a brief sketch of his life and works that are performed through song, poetry, short stories, plays, comedy, letters, court case recitals, and piano ballads. The cast also take on multiple parts, meaning we have different people playing Lawrence and other key figures. This brings out the ethos of ‘community’ theatre as everybody is effectively the star performer.

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Frieda Lawrence (Marie Paurin)

However, there are a few standout performances that deserve mentioning. Getting Frieda Lawrence to read out Lawrence’s damning poem The English Are So Nice was a masterstroke. It’s delivered with the right balance of sarcasm and perfectly weighted in delivery to enable the humour to come through:  The English are so nice/so awfully nice/they are the nicest people in the world./And what’s more, they’re very nice about being nice/ about your being nice as well!

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Sue Watts

A Colllier’s Wife is an incredibly difficult poem to read because of the dialect but Sue Watts was brilliant. She’s like a cross between Ms. Ball-breaker and Nora Batty and delivers this, and other lines, with absolute ferocity. And finally, the gem of the show goes to Andy Miller – a member of the Nottingham Writers’ Studio – for his adapted version of a Monty Python Sketch in which Lawrence and his father switch roles. It was completely unexpected and perfect for getting across the cultural tensions faced by Eastwood’s favourite mard arse.

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And now for something completely different: Andy Miller (right) as Lawrence switches roles with his father.

The play was performed as part of the Little Bit Scruffy Festival at the Grand Pavilion Theatre in Matlock. The Theatre is the largest in the Derbyshire Dales but badly in need of repair and renovation. Lynn Allison, a Trustee, Director and Co Chairman of the charity that owns the building said the purpose of hosting the festival here was “to bring new people into the building to hear our rescue and renovation story;  to bring new drama to the area; and to break even”. The Grand Pavilion was built in 1910 but has sustained damage from water over the years. “Because of the condition of the building, we say it is ‘Open – ambitious – and Still a Little Bit Scruffy’ hence the name of the festival.”

Lawrence lived a largely nomadic existence and wasn’t one for materialism. He was renowned for his DIY skills and ‘make do and mend’ attitude, so I’m sure he would approve of his work being celebrated in such shabby, yet homely, surroundings. Just like the rabbit in his short story Adolph, a little love and tenderness is required to help resurrect this old building back to its former glory. But whereas Adolph needed a few sugar cubes, the charity needs a few million. It will be hard slog, but one you can support while being entertained at the same time.

The Little Bit Scruffy Festival runs from 28 May – 2 July and includes other performances and workshops.

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Codnor and ‘Tickets, Please’

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Derbyshire writer Becky Deans has adapted Lawrence’s short story Tickets, Please and would love to see it performed on a tram at Crich Tramway Village. The story has particular resonance for Becky as the route it mentions goes through her home village of Codnor. Tickets, Please tells the tale of John Thomas Raynor (nicknamed Coddy) who flirts with the female conductors on Annie Stone’s line. But the women eventually turn on him and he’s forced to confront the consequences of his behaviour.

My first interest in the story Tickets, Please was the location. The tramline it describes started in Ripley, Derbyshire. The ‘last little ugly place of industry, the cold little town that shivers on the edge of the wild, gloomy countryside beyond’ is where I went to school. I was attracted by Lawrence’s love-hate relationship with the places of his youth and wanted to adapt the story for local people.

I was transfixed by a story that was set in the village that I grew up in. Codnor was on the route of the Ripley Rattler. A painter called Ruth Gray (who is based in Belper) did a whole series of pictures based on the route and I own one of the Codnor originals. She exhibited them at Durban House in 2014.

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Becky’s beloved Ruth Gray painting of Codnor, still in its cellophane.

I’d read Lawrence before, but to have him prowling on my doorstep, meeting and breaking the hearts of local women, was heaven. For in my eyes, Lawrence is John Thomas, even though I have also created a character called David Herbert to act as narrator within the play. I don’t think Lawrence would be upset at being two characters in a play. I have also added a new character, called George Curzon, who has the function of being the outsider, so can have things explained to him.

The tram that Lawrence describes first set off in 1913 and was retired in 1932 in favour of the trolley bus system. It was known as the Ripley Rattler and took two hours to reach Nottingham. It was the principal way to travel between the mining villages ‘from village to village the miners travel, for a change of cinema, of girl, of pub’. The story immortalises a lifestyle, culture and dialect that largely left the area when technology moved on and the mines closed, something that I wanted to preserve and recreate through a one-act play.

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15th August 1913, one of the first two trams to arrive at Ripley. Image from Midland General Omnibus.

I enjoy Lawrence’s use of dialect within the story. Dialect is something I use in my stories; I revel in the quirks of language. And if we believe the book Ey Up Me Duck, Dialect of Derbyshire and the East Midlands by Richard Scollins and John Titford, we could say it is the same in Nottinghamshire as Derbyshire. In truth there are nuances, even now.  Derby dialect is not quite the same as the Amber Valley dialect, but some of the language of miners seems to be constant. Phrases such as the deep benk seem to be fairly stable – I picked up this phrase from my grandad.

The surnames of the characters are also recognisable. The Birkins used to run the garage my grandad went to in Codnor and there are also many Burgins in the cemetery in Codnor too. I know or have known Housleys, Purdys, Baggaleys and Curzons. There are Meakins throughout the local area too.

I also relish the questions that Lawrence poses about gender and gender in wartime. Wartime allows the girls to step outside their conventional gender roles and become ‘fearless young hussies’. They outnumber and are stronger than the men they work with, who are mainly ‘men unfit for active service: cripples and hunchbacks’. In scene two Nora and Polly almost come to blows over John Thomas, reinforcing the way that wartime has brought out what may be deemed more masculine tendencies. The collectors ‘have all the sang-froid of a non-commissioned officer’: they are the front line of law on the tram and therefore their relationships are characterised by the urgency of wartime.

And wartime allows the ultimately violent conclusion.

I am now seeking a school or community group to work with to help me develop and put on this play and discuss the interesting relationships between men and women within it, as well as the changes to the language and landscape of the coalfields area.

Further Reading

 Biography

Becky Deans is a Derbyshire writer with an MA in Creative Writing from UEA. She published her first novella, Exposé, in 1999 (UEA texts series) and has short stories and poems in various publications, as well as advertisements across the UK press. As a saxophonist with a diploma in saxophone performance, she is currently exploring song writing while singing and playing in a duo and a trio in the pubs of Derbyshire. She has recently been selected for the Derbyshire Residencies: Writing Ambitions Scheme funded by Derbyshire County Council and the Arts Council, and is looking forward to taking her writing forward as she delivers creative writing sessions to a community group.

 

 

REVIEW: Lady Chatterley’s Lover at Sheffield Lyceum

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Jonah Russell (Mellors) Hedydd Dylan (Lady C)

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”)

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Eugene O’Hara as Clifford Chatterley

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

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Review: A Novel Trial – Chatterley’s Lover

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The audience take on roles during the reenactment of the trial

On the 2 November 1960 Penguin books was acquitted of obscenity at the Old Bailey. Finally, after a 32 year wait, D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was declared a legitimate read. The novel was deemed controversial due to its explicit language and the openness with which it portrayed sexual acts. But what really rattled the establishment was the suggestion that a toff might wish to commit adultery with someone at the bottom of the pecking order. The fact that Penguin were selling the book for 3/6 – then the equivalent of a packet of ten fags – meant the working classes might get silly ideas in their head. The entire social order was under threat.

The trial lasted six days and so I was curious as to how the Galleries of Justice were going to pull this off given that they had programmed in one hour for their ‘show’, the third Lawrence related performance of the NEAT16 festival: the others being Stephen Lowe’s Altitude Sickness and The Fight for Barbara.

Thirty members of the public were ushered through into the Victorian styled courtroom and we took our seats at the back of the courtroom. I then sat excitedly waiting for a cast of actors to walk through to be given some kind of contextual account of the trial. Instead three members of the Galleries of Justice, dressed in suitable attire, explained that volunteers were required to take on key roles. These roles included: Judge, Court Usher and Clerk; the defendant Penguin Books; two witnesses for the Prosecution – American critic Miss Esther Forbes and Lawrence’s friend/foe, editor and author John Middleton Murray. The Witnesses for the Defence were – Vivian Pinto, a Professor of English at the University of Nottingham, The Sunday Times Literary Editor Jack Walter Lambert, Roy Jenkins MP, Reverend Donald Tytler and the courageous publisher, Sir Allen Lane.

Surprisingly, the audience were very forthcoming and eager to participate and so the roles were quickly taken up. This was largely due to the stern and entertaining direction of the Galleries of Justice staff member playing the part of the Prosecution Barrister. She had a lovely demeanour about her and put all of our nerves at ease. But another reason the audience were so keen to get involved is most of them were members of the D.H Lawrence Society. Consequently, the role of judge was quickly snapped up by David Brock, a keen animal rights activist, who wasted no time in questioning what material his outfit was made from. Oh dear. There’s only one thing more passionate than D.H Lawrence and that’s a fan of D.H Lawrence. But Mr Brock also hammed up his role and was very entertaining.

The participants were issued with a script and on occasion, some chose to deviate in the name of humour and Laurentian education. For example, when it was announced that Penguin had sold over 250 million books and therefore Allen Lane was a very wealthy man, Mr. Brock interjected that money was a corrupting influence and no guarantee of happiness, echoing the sentiments of DH Lawrence.

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Artwork from www.dawnoftheunread.com

The script skimmed over key parts of the trial and gave a broad picture of what went on. Although one member of the D.H Lawrence Society was completely aghast that cultural critic Richard (‘we’re not all the same, us working class lads’) Hoggart wasn’t one of the five witnesses for the defence. This is a fair point as Hoggart’s testimony was deemed a key turning point of the trial. But these criticisms were politely rebuffed by the Prosecuting Barrister.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself and I think this is largely because it went against all of my expectations. Instead of a dry recital of facts and quotes, the audience were completely immersed in the trial through role play; active participation is always the best way to learn. This was signified by the jury being sent out to deliberate and decide for themselves if Penguin were guilty or not. Their verdict was ‘not guilty’, thus history remained on course and the future would still have a place for Malcom Tucker, the 4 minute fuck scene in The Wire and Fifty Shades of Grey.

A Novel Trial: Lady Chatterley’s Lover was performed at the Galleries of Justice on 2 June, 6.30-7.30pm £7.50

For more information on other performances, please see the NEAT16 festival guide

REVIEW: D.H. Lawrence & Tennessee Williams – By Night and Day

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Tennessee Williams

D.H Lawrence wrote eight full-length plays, six of which were penned between 1909 and 1913. Of these, only two were performed during his lifetime and only three were published. The Fight for Barbara (1912) was found in an attic in Heidelberg after Lawrence had died. This suggests either he never intended it for public consumption or more likely, it was stored there for a rainy day and he simply forgot about it. For NEAT16 it was performed alongside an unfinished play by Tennessee Williams, which features D. H Lawrence and was unearthed in 2014 at the University of Texas. This was its first ever public performance, so it’s quite a scoop for the NEAT festival.

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The Night of the Zeppelin

Williams’ play kicked off proceedings, and ran for about twenty minutes. This amounts to around ten typewritten pages, consisting of two scenes. The action takes place during WWI and stars two literati couples in D.H Lawrence (Kieran Hardcastle) and Frieda Lawrence (Holly Lucas) and publisher John Middleton Murray (David Beckford) and the novelist Katherine Mansfield (Katherine Morrant).

The unfinished play was billed as The Night of the Zeppelin as this was the title given to the first scene, which opens as follows:

“The room of a shoddy lodging place in London, 1916. The Murrays, John Middleton and Katharine Mansfield are visiting the Lawrences. It is near Christmas. Some German cookies, made by Frieda and a bottle of wine are on a little table and there is a small artificial tree with home-made decorations. The legend, PEACE ON EARTH, crowns the tree.”

Although this was a short piece there was enough in it to keep you intrigued. Air raid sirens are wailing, and orange lights beam up across the top of the middle tier seats so that the audience are plunged into the action. But despite the bombs, Katherine Mansfield has a bigger battle. She is coughing up blood and dramatically claims it’s coming from her heart, and so Williams has us wondering what emotional trauma is she going through.

Mansfield was diagnosed with the dreaded tuberculosis in 1917 and would succumb to it in 1923 at the age of 34. In the play, Lawrence confesses that he too has coughed up blood which brings the two friends closer together. Williams has taken a rare liberty with the facts here as Lawrence was not officially diagnosed with TB until the mid-1920s  – although he did have pneumonia as an adolescent which developed into a lifelong ‘weak chest’. Lawrence largely ignored his symptoms and was to some extend in denial, so I wonder whether he’d have been so forthcoming about his symptoms.

But the group of friends were very close and so the production left me thinking how Williams would have interpreted their friendship. John and Katherine attended the Lawrence’s wedding and shortly after Katherine died, John had an affair with Frieda. This would have been particularly difficult for Lawrence, not least because he’d taken quite a liking to him also. The friends would part ways in 1918 and not see each other in the flesh again, although Lawrence and Katherine would write regularly to each other – something the director, Martin Berry, suggested could make for an interesting future production.

Tennessee Williams never met Lawrence, but he admired him greatly. His plays have been described as being full of ‘lyrical Laurentian outpourings’. In 1939 he wrote to Frieda Lawrence expressing his desire to write a play about Lawrence, ‘dramatizing not so much his life as his ideas or philosophy which strike me as being the richest expressed in modern writing’. The closest he got to achieving this was the one-act play I Rise in Flame, Cried the Phoenix (1951) but this was far from complimentary and instead exposed the contradictions between Lawrence the writer and Lawrence the man.

My only criticism of the production of this play is one of curation. It would have been far better placed with Stephen Lowe’s Altitude Sickness (which kicked off the Neat Festival on17 May) as both start with a game of charades and both deal with an unfinished play.

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Director Martin Berry (left)

The Fight for Barbara (1912)

Lawrence’s plays generally tend to be provincial, focused on the working classes, rich in local dialect, and are fraught with domestic conflict and drudgery. His male characters are proper angry young (Eastwood) men and the action tends to take place around what we would now describe as the ‘kitchen sink’. Perhaps because of his brutal and honest portrayal of working class life, it took a long time for his plays to become fashionable with the ‘mathematical folk’ at the Royal Court Theatre. The Fight for Barbara got its first run at London’s Mermaid Theatre in 1967, and led one critic to observe, ‘If this play had seen the light of day sooner, Look Back in Anger might not have seemed so original.’

The story revolves around Barbara Charlcote (Holly Lucas) who has left her aristocratic husband Fredrick Tressider (David Beckford) for the working class ruffian John Wesson (Kieran Hardcastle). The action takes place in Italy and is yet another highly biographical work that mirrors Lawrence’s personal life: In 1912 Frieda left her husband Earnest Weekley and eloped with Lawrence. They first headed to Germany, then Austria, before eventually settling down in Villa Igea, Gargnano, from 18 September 1912 to 30 March 1913.

Although the play is set in Italy it could easily be one of Lawrence’s Eastwood plays as it has all of the usual ingredients. In particular we have class conflict, represented by Wesson insisting Barbara take off her silly fanciful dress that represents pomposity. When she is dismissive of him for being a miner’s son, Wesson is keen to point out he’s the son of a butty collier. This is an important distinction and a point of pride.

The title of the play suggests that the lead has no agency but this is quite the opposite. Barbara is a fiery character who wants to determine her own destiny and has the confidence to reject advice from her mother Lady Charlcote (the sneering Tanya Myers) as well as the paternalism of Sir William Charlcote (the indignant Robin Simpson).

Barbara then finds herself torn between her suiters when her husband turns up and chides them both for their possessiveness: ‘All men are alike. They don’t care what a woman wants. They try to get hold of what they want themselves, as it were a pipe. As for the woman, she’s not considered – and so – that’s where you make your mistake, gentlemen’.

When both her husband and lover threaten to kill her she dismisses the violence with a matter-of-fact, ‘Not twice in one night.’ Barbara may have been pampered but she can hold her own. She refuses to be ‘swallowed’ up by anyone and mocks Wesson’s masculinity in some superb exaggerated acting when she dives on all fours like a dog and ‘paps’ at him. To be fair, Wesson deserves it. He’s a bit weak and doesn’t have the stage presence of say Robin Simpson, who played Lawrence in Altitude Sickness. This isn’t the actor’s fault. In so accurately mirroring real events, Lawrence the writer has positioned himself in the play as an observer. Therefore Wesson has lost the fire that we associate with Lawrence himself.

As James Moran has observed in the superb The Theatre of D.H Lawrence (which I read in one sitting) ‘Lawrence’s fiction often works by presenting versions of Lawrence in which different aspects of his own life and personality are erased, embellished or invented; revealing a kind of thespian delight in role play and identity change’.

Director Martin Berry has trimmed around 40 minutes off the original play and this works well. I think he’s changed some of the original character’s surnames too. It was billed as a comedy but Lawrence isn’t capable of writing a comedy. He’s far to up his own arse. But he does have a gift for dialogue and like all writers worth their salt he can pin down the motivations of characters, particularly those he’s run off with in real life…

D.H Lawrence, By Day and Night was performed at the Nottingham Playhouse Tuesday 31 May – Wed 1 June. Tickets £11

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REVIEW: Stephen Lowe’s Altitude Sickness

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(L-R) Mabel Dodge Luhan, Frieda Lawrence, Dorothy Brett

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

Stephen Lowe on ‘Altitude Sickness’

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Photograph by James Walker in Stephen’s study.

Stephen Lowe has dramatised and fictionalised the life of D.H. Lawrence many times over the year. His most recent play explores Lawrence’s life in Taos, where he found himself surrounded by three very independent women: Mabel Dodge Luhan, Dorothy Brett and Frieda Lawrence. 

Why is DH Lawrence important to you?
The easy answer is I’m a working class lad from Nottingham who wanted to be a writer and you can’t grow up not reading Lawrence. Lady Chatterley’s Lover came out when I was thirteen and I’ve spent my whole life living with and thinking about him. I’ve written about him so much he’s like family now. But sometimes we fall out.

Your new play Altitude Sickness deals with an area of Lawrence’s writing that’s problematic…
It deals with his notions about the submission of women and how the stronger the woman is the more she has to place herself, like The Taming of the Shrew, under the foot of the master. His notions of wills between relationships I now think are rather silly, particularly the phases through which this play looks at: when an artist makes a move from being an artist to a prophet and then a messiah.

What’s the context to the play?
Mabel Dodge Luhan was a wealthy heiress and patron of the Arts. The American equivalent of Lady Ottoline Morrell in that she came from that tradition of holding soirées for artists of all kinds. In 1923 she pays for Lawrence to come over to Taos, New Mexico along with a selection of arty folk to help set up her dream artistic community. She wanted Lawrence to write about her life.

He doesn’t strike me as someone who’d settle down into an ‘Arvon’ type commune.
Lawrence sees art as being like a grenade. It blows the world up and some will rise from the ashes with the phoenix. For him, art must have this tremendous revolutionary action that moves from the head to the blood to the pagan again. That’s what he wants from this meeting of people. He doesn’t want a commune with everyone writing poems on their own. He wants a commune in which he can lead as a revolutionary God. Which is what the play is about. It’s very funny, honest.

How does the play start?
Lawrence loved playing charades, which I find most curious. The problem was he had to win, and increasingly, he had to play all of the parts as well. I got this idea for this playful but significant game of charades that they’re setting up before breakfast in Mexico. The twenty minute script that Lawrence actually wrote – on which this play is based – is not important. What’s interesting is why he didn’t finish it.

Which has something to do with women…
Altitude Sickness explores what happened around the time that this opening scene is written and how Lawrence coped with having three powerful women vying for his attention. These were Mabel Dodge Luhan, aristocratic painter Dorothy Bret and, of course, his wife Frieda. It’s exactly what he would have liked, the three women fighting over him. It’s a classic play about sex and the relationship between a man and a woman. It’s important to look at the three women and how they represent challenges and changes to Lawrence.

Lawrence met his match in Frieda. A strong-willed woman…
There’s a famous story about how Lawrence and Frieda met in 1912. Lawrence went around to see his old tutor Ernest Weekley on Private Road, who Frieda was married to at the time. Weekley was out. The debate that goes around is whether it took her 20 or 25 minutes to get Lawrence into bed. Frieda had been the mistress of Otto Gross, one of Europe’s most notorious sexual revolutionaries and was an advocate of free love. Everything Lawrence knew about sex, Frieda taught him. But he found it very difficult to accept the consequences of her liberalism. He was very rarely unfaithful, she was determinedly so.

How did Lawrence cope with this?
Initially when they were on the move, Frieda carried on as she always said she would. As an advocate of free love. But eventually, when she sees the pain it causes him, she stays quiet about her affairs. Instead she says she is ‘visiting’ her mother in Baden Baden. Frieda is an incredible woman. Her principles and history are amazing.

She’s been unfairly derided by critics and painted as a heartless mother who abandoned her children…
When Frieda was married to Ernest Weekley she would take male friends to Germany to have her fun and always returned home. When she took Lawrence on one such trip, he wrote to her husband saying she wasn’t coming back. When Weekley got this letter he quickly got the lawyers and stopped Frieda from coming back and seeing her three children. Lawrence was very manipulative and I’m sure this caused their relationship friction over the years. But there’s no doubt that as much as they argued, they genuinely cared for each other.

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Helmut Naumer, Sr. (1935-36) Taos Pueblo

Lawrence was a restless beast who travelled the world in search of Rananim, a kind of utopian community of like-minded people. Did he find this in Taos?

Everywhere he’d gone before where he’d met the ‘natives’, he ended up disliking them, for not living up to his expectations. This wasn’t prejudice, it was Lawrence’s own personal ideology. But, from the Pueblo Indians of Taos, he felt there was something to be learned. I explore this in the play through the Hopi Indian dance, but beware of the snake…

Why was he searching for Rananim in New Mexico?
Taos is cut off. It’s up in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico. It’s about communing with nature. Lawrence yearned desperately for that pagan way of living; running naked into the forest when it rained. This wasn’t unusual in the twenties. People were seeking completely different ways of living after WWI. You either went hedonistic, like the bright young things of Evelyn Waugh’s novels – who Lawrence detested – or you went pagan. You went backwards to see if native cultures had something.

Have you visited the ranch?
I was offered a place to write there thirty years ago when I was a shepherd in Yorkshire. But I couldn’t afford the air fare at the time. I got to go five years ago when they were doing my play Empty Bed Blues, which is about a dying Lawrence trying to find a publisher for Lady Chatterley. It’s pretty basic and freezing in winter because it’s 6-7,000 feet up. Lawrence and Frieda were terrific about being poor. Frieda made the worst dresses you can imagine out of old curtains and didn’t give a damn.

Do you think he was truly happy in Taos?
Lawrence was massively influenced by the philosopher and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, who was into simple living in natural surroundings. Lawrence wanted somewhere without a divide so that when you opened your door you were straight into wilderness. Primitive. With a cow. Lawrence loved milking his cow every day. It was this that led to the ‘prophet’ notion. So landscape and place was crucial to him. The cruel irony is that after travelling all over the world to find this spot, he finally finds it and he’s told he has to move out because it’s bad for his health.

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The cast discuss the play after the performance.

Altitude Sickness, Lakeside Arts Centre as part of NEAT16, Tuesday 17 May 2016, 2pm & 8pm, £5.

Steven Lowe’s website