Writer: D H Lawrence
Director: Jack Gamble
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
As a novelist, D.H. Lawrence has long been revered, but the appreciation of his skills as a playwright has taken a little longer. Of the 10 plays he wrote, only two were performed during his lifetime with most only finding an audience more than 50 years on. One of his finest works, The Daughter-in-Law, written in 1913, was first staged by the Royal Court in 1967 and hasn’t been seen in London for 15 years.
Set in 1912 at the time of the miner’s strike over pay and benefits, newlyweds Luther and Minnie Gascoyne are finding their new proximity increasingly difficult to bear. Having circled each other for years, the shine has already come off their marriage, not helped by the strong relationship Luther maintains with his mother and brother who live nearby. As the labour situation reaches breaking point, an earlier misdemeanour comes back to haunt Luther and the couple struggle to see a future together.
Directed by Jack Gamble, this revival of The Daughter-in-Lawis everything you could want from a Lawrence adaptation and more. Performed in the round in the Arcola’s small studio space, it creates a suffocating impression of the small patch of earth each miner could call his own, surrounded on all sides by countless other lives that frequently intrude, as the Purdy’s do, into what feels like a fragile and fleeting existence, where an accident at the mine could destroy the financial balance of the family.
At a time of outcry about the lack of working-class writers, this revival is an important reminder of the intricate pattern of life and the complex emotional interplay between people who love one another – it’s not only middle-class people in drawing rooms who have the luxury of feelings. And Gamble’s production brings a wonderful intensity to Lawrence’s concern with the battle of will between men and women which is such a feature of all his writing, the struggle to find commonality and a spiritual contentment that fulfils them both. Gamble’s skill is to make the battle for Luther’s soul the focus of the play drawing the other characters into focus around it.
Ellie Nunn is superb as Minnie Gascoyne, a former governess who feels she’s married beneath her because, as Luther claims, she couldn’t find anyone better. Yet, Nunn finds considerably depth in the role, taking Minnie beyond the nagging self-important wife, to someone who is clearly deeply in love with her husband but has yet to realise it. Early on, before the drama, the couple have a hugely charged moment, imply a wildness between them that they deliberately stifle, but makes perfect sense of their later frustration.
Luther is a less fiery character and Harry Hepple suggests a man who has spent his whole life in the control of women and too exhausted to fight back. We see flickers of passion as he describes his lot, wishing for a different life before sinking into a defeat that becomes very contained and controlled, entirely warn down.
Between them mother Veronica Roberts is a woman who has taken all life has to throw at her and is still fighting. Her malicious streak builds to an enjoyable confrontation with Minnie in Act Three, but you know women like Mrs Gascoyne make that world work. There is good support from Tessa Bell-Briggs as Mrs Purdy who takes a softer approach to ensure the deal she desires, while Matthew Biddulph’s makes much from Joe’s shifting loyalties.
Lawrence was an extraordinary writer and beautiful playwright, bringing colour and meaning to the mining communities that his work so often depicts. This revival of The Daughter-in-Lawis a treat, perfectly paced and full of simmering tension that has everything to say about the relationships between men and their mothers, as well as men and women. It deserves a West End transfer, and a chance to be seen by a wider audience, let’s not wait another 15 years to see it again.
Runs until 23 June 2018 | Image: Idil Sukan