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Review: Husbands and Sons, National Theatre

Lucy Pegg reviews Husbands and Sons at the National Theatre, a pulling together of narratives from three DH Lawrence plays.

Bringing the lives of early 20th Century mining communities to the London stage, the National Theatre’s current production of Husbands and Sons interweaves three of DH Lawrence’s plays into a single multi-narrative production. It’s dark and visceral presentation of working class life is striking, exploring the cruelties of the lifestyle without condemning and dismissing the mining experience.

This production, directed by Marianne Elliot and adapted by Ben Power, is performed in the National’s Dorfman Theatre. For me, this was my first experience of theatre in the round, and Husbands and Sons seems the perfect play for the staging. The play’s three families – each taken from one of Lawrence’s texts – inhabit their own deconstructed house on the stage. These houses have no walls; there are instead labelled blue prints of the house on the stage’s floor, filled with furniture, though many props are mimed instead of being physically present. These deconstructed homes mirror the deconstruction the families and households will undergo; the blueprints of relationships are revealed, just as those of the buildings are.

Photo by Manuel Harlan, from nationaltheatre.org.uk

This dynamic staging reinforces the immersive nature of the play, which submerges the audience in the world of the miners and their families. That this is a world which has almost disappeared from Britain only heightens this feeling: for young people like me the world of pits is very alien, part of neither history nor present. But this performance managed to take me to the heart of this culture, the humanity of the characters cutting through the modern day reservations we may have about mining. The offstage sound of the pits, which cuts through the main action at strategic points, speaks of a dominating presence that the performance really convinced me was waiting there in the wings.

Besides the staging, the actors’ performances are powerful, yet manage to not seem out of place in the ordinary domestic setting. The women’s roles are particularly resonant; we can feel how trapped they are within their on-stage houses, particularly the wives whose natural instincts are often at odds with the confines their domestic role has put on them. Not that they’re shrinking violets: these women stand up for themselves, showing a boldness that we sometimes forget resided in even the ordinary women of the past. The performances of Anne-Marie Duff and Louise Brealey are of particular note, the latter so convincing in her role she made me forget my excitement at realising she plays Molly in Sherlock. The particular performance I saw also happened to see the play’s adaptor, Ben Power, step into the role of Blackmore due to illness, whose soft, friendly demeanour shone through even as he read his lines from the script in his hand.

My only reservations about the play stem from the narratives’ conclusions. The play is perhaps lacking in a sense of resolution, and I certainly left the theatre with a twinge of hopelessness in my gut. The Holroyd household narrative has a more definite conclusion than the others, yet it is a conclusion which seems to snuff out the hope that Lizzie will escape her suffocating home. Though the mother/son relationship in the Lambert family is reaffirmed it’s also clear that it can’t remain static in this place of reconciliation. And for the Gascoigne’s, it seems as though their denouement must happen outside the confines of the play. This narrative construction might be more naturalistic and lend to the play’s sense of authenticity, but it does then lack the catharsis that is generally expected.

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The play may be called Husbands and Sons, but it is women that are at the heart of this story. We see how they hold the community together, often at the sacrifice of their own desires. Other reviewers have criticised the conflation of the three texts, but for me the multiplicity was illustrative, giving a multi-faceted look at their lifestyle, and showing the common nature of this experience, rather than its exceptionality.

You can find more information here on the National Theatre website

All photos by Manuel Harlan and sourced from nationaltheatre.org.uk

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