DESPITE several stage adaptations, not to mention at least four films and probably numerous loosely connected TV dramas too, any version of D.H. Lawrence’s classic novel is likely to be the subject of at least a degree of interest, controversy even.
This new adaptation, a joint English Touring Theatre and Sheffield Theatres production, was adapted and directed by Phillip Breen and is currently enjoying a national tour. The original book, set and written in the late ‘20s and famously banned from publication in the UK until 1960, is essentially a story about freedom of both mind and body during a period of great social instability. As people struggled to come to terms with the aftermath of the Great War and when the old order and traditional British class system was, to all intents and purposes, disintegrating, the very future of the nation seemed decidedly uncertain.
The social unrest that forms the backdrop to the book springs directly from Lawrence’s own childhood within a Nottinghamshire mining community, and it remains remarkably relevant today. With anxiety and uncertainty surrounding Brexit, the increasing disparity of people’s wealth, issues concerning unemployment, freedom of movement, refugees and immigration high on the agenda and the current disquiet over the refusal to hold a public enquiry into Thatcher’s handling of the miners’ strike to say nothing of the news just in from America, our future is possibly every bit as uncertain now as it was then.
The first UK adaptation of the novel was in 1961 – a production that made theatrical history by using the most basic of the four-letter words. But, as Kenneth Tynan so humorously wrote in the Observer all those years ago, the play came “no nearer to the act itself than a few tweed-clutching embraces, followed by blackouts and a morning scene in Mellors’ bed, which was ruined for me when I perceived that Connie, so far from being naked, was wearing beneath the sheets a flesh-tinted corselette of bullet-proof impregnability.”
What was Salisbury going to offer? Well, to answer the most obvious question first, there were definitely no body stockings. The sex and the nudity, of which there was plenty by the way, was very sensitively handled and the scene in Act II in particular, where Connie (Hedydd Dylan) and an extremely youthful Mellors (Jonah Russell) dance naked in the rain was beautiful in the extreme. The cascades of real water caught the light most effectively and the fun the two of them had before having sex and covering their genitals with flowers was absolutely enthralling.
The background to unhappy marriage of Sir Clifford Chatterley (Eugene O’Hare) and his wife was conveyed at the beginning of the play through a series of short scenes, some very short indeed. There was a lot of context to get through and the idea was probably a good one although I am not sure it was altogether successful in its execution. Some of the blackouts were too long and there was just too many of them. Clifford’s helplessness as Connie bathed him, for example, conveyed simply and effectively the early tenderness she felt towards her husband, but a good deal of the empathy we might have shown towards them was lost in the sudden blackout and the clunking of feet as the next little tableau was prepared. Such snapshots need to be seamless in their execution if the audience are not going to be distanced from the action and even cease to care for the characters. I liked the austerity of Laura Hopkins’s set, particularly the use of the curtain at the back of the stage, but with minimal props, Natasha Chivers’ highly imaginative lighting, sound and live music too, these early scenes had the potential for far greater fluidity and impact.
As the play progressed, individual scenes tended to become longer and in consequence things flowed rather better. And there were some beautiful moments: the tender scene with the baby pheasant that leads up to Connie’s and Mellors’ first sexual encounter; Mrs. Bolton’s (Rachel Sanders) emotional description of the tragic death of her husband as she and Connie are planting bulbs (at least I think that was what they were doing); the slimy Michaelis’ (Will Irvine) cruel melodrama parodying the Chatterley household; Connie’s struggling and comic shots at Mellors’ broad Midlands accent; the frustration and anger felt by Mellors and the Chatterleys when the obstinate and contemptuous Clifford eventually concedes he is going to need help with his motorised wheelchair; the latter’s painful attempt at getting up from his chair and use his crutches. These were powerful scenes, and although the play remained episodic in nature, they were long enough for us, the audience, to get into things.
Although, of necessity, not given the attention that is afforded by the novel itself, the political background to Lady Chatterley’s Lover was not lost. The class distinctions were always in evidence, while the socialist rally and the scene of police brutality contrasted well with some of the more intimate sections of the play. However, the love story and the political background came together most beautifully and tenderly at the end when Mellors and Connie meet up again following her return from Venice.
“If there’s got to be a future for humanity” Mellors says (I am quoting here from the book, not the script), “there’ll have to be a very big change from what now is.”
Writing this on 9th November 2016, little could he have realised just how relevant that would be.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover can be seen at Salisbury until this coming Saturday.