Husbands & Sons, National Theatre (Dorfman), London: ‘Female perspectives on everyday reality’

D.H. Lawrence’s three early mining-community dramas are expertly staged
Anne-Marie Duff in 'Husbands & Sons'. Photo: Manuel Harlan

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The tail sometimes threatens to wag the dog in this production, as each solution throws up a new problem to be solved in turn by another great wheeze. The first idea is to stage D.H. Lawrence’s three early Nottinghamshire mining-community dramas by stitching them into a single three-hour drama. (The salient metaphor here is not interweaving of different strands, but rather that of a patchwork quilt.)

But how to keep three separate households onstage the whole time, without blocking audience views unduly? Answer: paint floor plans on the stage, with coal-bordered passages leading between the houses and steps to the auditorium serving as “upstairs”. Ah, but it’s a populous stage picture, and almost always active; the audience may have problems seeing round or past one household. Solution: have half the audience change seats at the interval, to give them a literally new perspective.

Director Marianne Elliott and adapter Ben Power set themselves a task, then. And they succeed in navigating their way through, although not quite with flying colours. What becomes clear is the commonality of Lawrence’s preoccupations, which in all cases are with the female side of relationships — the title of this version is not so much ironic as sarcastic.

In the three plays/strands, the tortuous paths women take past and around husbands, children or in-laws all wind through the same world, indeed the same street. In The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd, Lizzie Holroyd survives an abusive collier husband and the unconsummated love of a neighbouring pit electrician. Lydia Lambert faces mutual hostility with her miner husband, as well as her too-intense, frustrated hopes for her student son, in A Collier’s Friday Night. And The Daughter-In-Law finds domestic servant Minnie Gascoigne attempting to forge a relationship with her husband which supersedes his own with his domineering mother.

Abstract concepts take second place to everyday reality, where injury or strike pay means real hardship and it sometimes seems that the most fulfilling relationship that can be hoped for is one of negligent disregard on one side and resignation on the other. However, not even the skills of Anne-Marie Duff as Mrs Holroyd can conceal the fact that The Daughter-In-Law is in a different league from the other two plays. Louise Brealey as Minnie (played by Duff in the play’s last major London revival in 2002) and Susan Brown as her mother-in-law each hew out impressive dramatic territory of their own as opposed to being merely parts of the bedrock.



To February 10, nationaltheatre.org.uk

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