As usual, just when I was beginning to despair of ever seeing a really good piece of theatre again (after a run of three particularly dismal shows at the National), the magic returns. The show responsible on this occasion was somewhat surprising given that the author is D.H. Lawrence, a writer I last encountered (and disliked) at school.
This play is, it seems, an amalgamation (by Ben Power) of three plays by Lawrence, all set in a mining community similar to the one in which the author grew up. This mash up evidently offended some critics who remembered performances of the individual plays from years ago and thought they were weakened (for some fatally) through being combined. Not having seen the plays before I had no such problem, and if I hadn't been told it was a combination of three plays I'm not sure I'd have known. The stories were very effectively linked together by two common threads: unhappy households and the curse of the mining existence – from neither is there any escape, to which is added a further layer of pain since it is by no means clear that the characters wish to.
Having survived an unhappy marriage one becomes oddly attuned to fictional depictions of it. In this case Minnie Gascoigne's (Louise Brealey) perpetual criticism of her husband was especially near the bone and yet Lawrence never (with this or any of the other couples) falls into the trap of making the fault one sided. We don't perhaps quite get at what is driving Minnie's behavior but her unhappiness and inability for most of the play to stop herself are powerfully drawn. After the interval the misery is dominated by the Holroyds (Anne-Marie Duff and Martin Marquez). Duff is typically magnetic, this time in her hesitancy to give way to new passion. Marquez does a frightening drunk, but again not to such an extreme as to destroy our feeling for him. Also especially worthy of mention is Julia Ford's Lydia Lambert, grown apart from her husband, struggling to relinquish her son. The whole ensemble is consistently fine not least in the many moments of silent action, or isolated stillness that conjure up the community continuing even as we focus in on each particular narrative.
Marianne Elliott's direction, as hopefully is already clear, is again excellent. As with other plays she's staged in the Dorfman, she chooses to seat the audience on all four sides. An additional touch here is to formally have you move to seats on the diagonally opposite side of the stage for the second half. This pays dividends – wherever you are there are always performances to watch. I consider myself especially fortunate though to have been seated mere feet from the Holroyd house for part two. Duff's hesitancy, curling up, shying away from her possible lover, hands plainly itching to touch him though they barely move was enormously powerful. Elliott also makes an interesting and effective decision about the balance between realism and imagination. The small poky houses are realistically created and cleverly laid out (strong work from designer Bunny Christie), but props are limited – for instance food and the putting on of coats (both of which are regular features of the action) are mimed. It was reminiscent of the Almeida's recent imported Our Town, it takes maybe a scene to adjust to it and after that, for me, it completely worked. Two other imagined elements are especially striking. There are no walls to these houses, but the sense of smallness, the way in which their closed in nature, the lack of anywhere to physically escape, adds to the emotional pressures is painfully clear. Finally we are never allowed to forget the oppressive presence of the mine – from a brilliant opening evocation of the ascending cage to the conclusion. The subtle work here and throughout of lighting designer Lucy Carter, video designer Tal Rosner, movement director Scott Graham and Adrian Sutton (music) also makes an important contribution.
I arrived at this performance feeling tired and wondering if I really had the energy to sit through a three hour show. But it achieves the greatest theatrical trick of them all (at least as far as I'm concerned): to make the outside world disappear so that there is only you and these characters and their plight. Not to be missed.