Dorfman Theatre | ★★★☆☆
Throughout his novels, poems and plays – though hardly in real life – DH Lawrence would return to the murky Midland mining village of his youth: a community of dour, drink-sodden colliers and their hard-nosed, long-suffering wives. The men flaunt their masculinity, but are unable to express much else about themselves; the women, stuck at home, grapple with their thwarted aspirations and conflicted feelings toward their men. It is this consistency in setting and coherence of worldview that has allowed the ambitious folk at the National to merge three of Lawrence’s earliest plays into one sprawling production, in which all three are staged simultaneously.
The intimate Dorfman Theatre is transformed, by a spare, non-naturalistic set comprising three neighbouring houses, into Lawrence’s hometown of Eastwood. Each home is the setting for one of the plays, and the action leapfrogs between the three – the sudden transitions, curiously, emulating the rhythm of a TV soap. The three sets of characters barely interact, but parallels are drawn between their lives through smart juxtapositions in the staging.
It’s a bold conceit, and at times it is deployed exquisitely: a tender scene in which one housewife sings a folk ballad, which is then picked up by the women in the other houses, underlines the strong social ties in Lawrence’s community – and deftly suggests that we may be watching the same person at three stages in her life.
But this structure ends up privileging the more dramatic two plays over the other. The first act is dominated by the story of the Gascoigne couple, almost sundered when he admits to infidelity; the second, by a crisis in the Holroyd household, which draws out latent tensions between wife (the dependably subtle Anne-Marie Duff) and mother-in-law. Amid these, the rather anecdotal narrative of the Lambert family is distinctly secondary, and is further let down by some ropey acting.
As drama, Husbands & Sons is intermittently brilliant, but overlong and inevitably discursive. As an evocation of a place, it’s a triumph: from the in-the-round staging to the faithful use of dialect, the production succeeds in drawing you into the society that Lawrence chronicled from afar.