Husbands & Sons, National Theatre, review: ‘Grim but rich’

Anne-Marie Duff in Husbands and Sons. Picture: Manuel Harlan

Anne-Marie Duff in Husbands and Sons. Picture: Manuel Harlan - Credit: Archant

Three hours of DH Lawrence makes for a spellbindingly intimate epic, says Marianka Swain.

Three plays, three families, three hours of DH Lawrence. If that fills you with dread, I have good news: Ben Power’s skilled melding of this trio of mining dramas, unperformed in Lawrence’s lifetime, creates a spellbindingly intimate epic.

A Collier’s Friday Night, The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd and The Daughter-in-Law (1911-13) all take place in the author’s home town of Eastwood in the Midlands. Lawrence, who escaped through education, includes a self-parodic avatar in adolescent Ernest, boasting of his “instinct for Latin”. But this community is driven by more animal instincts, and Marianne Elliott’s visceral production honours its earthy, violent and sensual core.

The in-the-round Dorfman audience is thrust into the grimy action. Those in the aptly-named pit switch sides midway, so as to connect with the family on the opposite half of the stage – some detail needs to be seen in close-up.

Lawrence’s focus is not the brutalised menfolk, but the women trapped in equally claustrophobic domesticity. Power lucidly explores their cycle of love and neglect, turning from indolent husbands to funnel ambition through their sons, who are then pulled from their own wives by this sub-Freudian bond.

Grim, yes, but the dialect is rich with wild poetry and salty humour, and Elliott’s thoughtful evocation of the rhythms of working-class life is hypnotic. Bunny Christie’s effective hyper-naturalistic design gives us self-contained houses but no walls, with rooms and family names written on the ground – Our Town meets Cluedo.

Standouts in a superb ensemble include despairing wives Anne-Marie Duff, Louise Brealey and Julia Ford, indomitable mother-in-law Susan Brown, gruff, coal-blackened Lloyd Hutchinson and soused spouse Martin Marquez. Reflecting Lawrence’s own mixed feelings, there is both sadness and liberation in the knowledge that this is a world lost forever.

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Rating: 4/5 stars