Upside Down at the Bottom of the World was originally performed in 1980 and won David Allen the Australian Writers’ Guild Award for Best Play. Set in 1922, the play explores Lawrence’s brief time in Australia where he wrote Kangaroo. The controversial novel includes ‘The Nightmare’ chapter that details Lawrence’s experiences of living in Cornwall during World War One. The play has particular resonance for David Faulkner as he has played the part of Lawrence and is now directing the latest production at Lane Theatre, Newquay.
Tell us a little bit about yourself…
When I was a kid my father introduced me to the world of theatre and film. Acting from the age of twelve the smell of the greasepaint has never left me. But like so many other aspiring actors I was persuaded to get ‘a proper job’ with greater security than treating the professional boards. Even so, I continued my theatrical course as an actor and later as a director in both amateur and semi-professional theatre.
Chichester Festival Theatre played an important role in helping develop your career, as did a relationship breakup…
In Chichester I became involved with the Festival and made many helpful contacts that opened for me a number of otherwise closed doors, most importantly an agent. When my first wife and I parted company, I decided to fulfil my dream and ran away to the metaphorical circus so to speak.
Frieda once said that what she loved most about Lawrence was his saying ‘yes’ to life, known as ‘Bejahung’ in German. You’ve taken some risks that have helped share your career…
One day, while on the London tube, I happened to see an advert in Time Out which read, ‘English Speaking Actors wanted for the Cafe Theatre Frankfurt’. Rather than send my CV, photograph and covering letter, I bought a £17.50 Magic Bus Ticket, packed an overnight bag and the next thing I knew I was in Frankfurt looking for The Cafe Theatre. Probably due to bare faced cheek rather than my chosen audition pieces I was offered the job. Eighteen months later I was still working at the Cafe theatre as both an actor and director, doing three monthly rep.
It was here that you first encountered Davis Allen’s play…
Whilst there I saw Upside Down at the Bottom of the World performed by ESTA (English Speaking Theatre of Amsterdam) and when they needed a replacement for the role of Lawrence, due to illness of the previous actor playing the role, I was fortunately their first choice. As director, I had just previewed Samuel Becket’s Happy Days, and was happy to leave the run in the capable hands of the stage manager, and made the trip to Amsterdam to take over the role of Lawrence. No time for research as I had just ten days to learn the lines and replicate the role in preparation for a continued three-month tour of Holland and Germany. I remember so little of that production but often returned to the script with the thought that one day I would revive it.
And now you’re directing the play at Lane Theatre…
Now retired and living in Cornwall I run a small touring company as well as guest directing for several local community groups. In this role I have met many talented actors and when I discovered that two of these talented actors bore more than a passing resemblance to Lawrence and Frieda I decided the time was right to revive the play, this time with sufficient time to research the characters in depth and put my own spin on the text.
Lighting is very important in the play…
The text specifies that there should be no elaborate sets and that the actors create the character roles with minimal costume changes and in full view of the audience. Flash back scenes to – Cornwall – Eastwood – Bavaria etc – are marked by lighting effects and projected images and pre-recorded voices. As a director this approach to staging a play has always fascinated me and the creativity of the acting/technical team allow us to take what is, after all, no more than words on a page to an exciting and thought- provoking piece of pure theatre.
You’ve introduced some fascinating extra detail, such as Lawrence knitting bloomers…
Both Stuart Ellison and Jean Lenton who play Lawrence and Frieda respectively have done a great deal of homework in preparation for their roles and their research have identified aspects of the Lawrence’s relationship which is not found in the play yet together we have given a gentle nod in that direction. For example, Frieda liked wearing French knickers yet Lawrence preferred her to wear bloomers, which he often made for her. Therefore, at the beginning of the play we see Lawrence sewing a pair of bloomers which Frieda puts on in front of him. We see this sexual game playing is indeed a significant part of their relationship.
They had quite a turbulent relationship. Is this addressed in the play?
The turbulence and violence between the Lawrence’s is a known fact, therefore, it forms an important aspect of the play. My attitude is that as it is historically true is must be approached as real as possible. Unfortunately, as we live in a nanny state, with so many subjects that are deemed too sensitive to explore, there will always be some audience members who will feel uncomfortable with certain subjects. Theatre has always been there to challenge the status quo and I like to challenge. I can’t be side tracked by what someone else might think. My job is to present the play as honestly and as truthfully as I can and if it upsets those with a sensitive bent then so be it.
Presumably your audience will be aware of Lawrence’s reputation…
I am sure that the majority of people who come to see the play will be aware of Lawrence, whether in book or film, and will understand that it would be impossible to present a play about Lawrence without it dealing with sex, love and turbulent relationships.
Who else features in the play?
Gary Smith plays not only Jack Calcott but also the Doctor who rejected Lawrence from active service, the Cornish policeman who gave them the order to leave the county and a German Policeman who caught Lawrence and Frieda bonking in the Bavarian woods and arrests Lawrence for spying. Rachel Bailey plays Victoria Calcott and Jessie Chambers. Rachel bears a striking resemblance to Jessie.
Do you address Lawrence’s sexual ambiguity in the play?
There is no mention in the text to indicate Lawrence’s sexual ambiguity yet I have explored this aspect of Lawrence’s life in the scenes between Lawrence and Jack, during their political discussions. A look – A hand on a shoulder or knee – A long pause as they stare into each other’s eyes – directorial licence perhaps but I think it worth referencing in the play.
Cornwall had a profound effect on Lawrence, in particular the granite coastline which he wrote ‘had its own life force’. Was he on to something?
There is indeed a something about Cornwall that seeps from rocks and very much felt by the blood-conscious and not necessarily by the mind-conscious. Whether Lawrence was ‘on to something’ I don’t know but Cornwall has in my experience always attracted free thinkers and aging hippies and those creative types are not necessarily adverse to expanding their minds in whatever forms take their fancy.
How important is Lawrence’s literary legacy to the South West?
There is a DH Lawrence society in St Ives and Zennor and when we approached Zennor Hall with the idea of performing the play there they were very interested in everything connected with Lawrence in Cornwall and were able to give us lots of information about the couple when they lived there, and what they might have got up to. Sadly, Zennor Hall is too small for our production.
Why have you decided to stage the play now?
Sometimes a play comes along that has particular relevance at a certain time. Upside Down at the Bottom of the World is one of those plays. The political turmoil of the Diggers, the right/left struggle, the influence of the Unions in conflict with the capitalists is almost a mirror to what we are experiencing here and now.
Would Lawrence have voted ‘leave’ or ‘remain’?
Which way would Lawrence have voted in the referendum? Now that’s a hard one. Married to a German, he may have voted Remain. Then again having no truck with a capitalist world order, and being the son of a miner, perhaps, Leave. Now that would make a great play, haha.
Upside Down at the Bottom of the World is at Lane Theatre, Newquay, Cornwall, TR8 4PX from 14-16 March and 21 – 23 March 2019. Tickets £11 (£10 concessions)
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we get across Lawrence’s time spect in Cornwall and Australia? Is there room to show various plays that explore his life? In 2019 we begin building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact get involved and submit ideas here