tue 16/07/2024

The Daughter-in-Law, Arcola Theatre review - searing simplicity | reviews, news & interviews

The Daughter-in-Law, Arcola Theatre review - searing simplicity

The Daughter-in-Law, Arcola Theatre review - searing simplicity

DH Lawrence's tragically inflected 1913 tale of family relationships powerfully told

Mother and sons: from left, Joe (Matthew Biddulph), Luther (Matthew Barker), Mrs Gascoyne (Veronica Roberts)Images - Idil Sukan

There’s a stark power to Jack Gamble’s production of DH Lawrence’s The Daughter-in-Law, which has transferred to the Arcola’smain stage after an acclaimed opening run in the venue’s downstairs studio last May.

It still plays with a concentrated darkness in this larger space, heightened by the colloquial vigour of Lawrence’s language (wonderful phrasings like "th' racket an' tacket o' children"), and the heady dialect of the Nottinghamshire mining area where he grew up; you don’t assimilate it immediately, but it certainly grows on you with its sinewy expressiveness.

There’s as little embellishment in Louie Whitemore’s spare design as there is in the world that Lawrence depicts, one defined by work down the pits for the men, and a living that comes close to the edge of subsidence for the families of the community, especially during the 1912 industrial action which is part of the play’s action. Lawrence wrote The Daughter-in-Law a year after those events, and 1913 also saw the publication of his early masterpiece, the novel Sons and Lovers. The two works share much ground, most of all Lawrence’s exploration – in the play, it feels more like an excavation, given the dramatic intensity of its central scenes – of the smothering relationships between mothers and sons which last long beyond childhood closeness. “When they come to manhood, they can’t love, because their mother is the strongest power in their lives, and holds them,” Lawrence wrote of Sons and Lovers, a phrase which closely echoes the central accusations made by his titular daughter-in-law to her husband in the play.

An uncertainty hangs over Minnie’s place in this world 

The drama’s central presence is indeed Mrs Gascoyne (Veronica Roberts), whose slow-moving weight emphasises her matriarchal power (her husband is a past casualty of his profession). Her elder son Luther (Matthew Barker) has recently married Minnie (Ellie Nunn), who’s something of an outsider, her concerns extending beyond the community's horizons. Younger son Joe (Matthew Biddulph) is still at home, doubly so as the play opens, given that a broken arm is keeping him out of the mine: that was a result of his own “foolery” rather than any pit accident, however, and that word speaks of his own ability to escape this working world. His verbal agility and humour certainly give him a lightness that distinguishes him from his brother, and a spirit that’s somehow closer to Minnie.

But it’s not rivalries between the two siblings that will disrupt the play’s world, rather the revelation that Luther has unknowingly embarked on marriage with other attachments already there, a past involvement having left another woman pregnant. Given that his partnership with Minnie, as both admit, had begun at least as much pragmatically as romantically, that’s less of a hurt to the relationship in itself than something to be resolved, as the girl’s mother, the play’s fifth character (a second heavy feminine presence from Tessa Bell-Briggs), proposes, naming her own hefty sum to keep the matter quiet. But when that attempted subterfuge falls through, laceratingl tensions within the marriage emerge. (Pictured below, Matthew Barker, Ellie Nunn)

The Daughter-in-Law, Arcola TheatreThe dilemma is presented at first with a tell-it-straight directness – “it’s neither a cryin’ nor a laughin’ matter, but it’s a matter of a girl wi’ child, an’ a man six week married.” The phrase chimes somehow with Lawrence’s own description of this play as “neither a tragedy nor a comedy – just ordinary”, which seems to mark it out as a prototype of British naturalist drama (its first staging was in fact at the Royal Court in 1967, directed by Peter Gill). But Lawrence’s dramatic manner in The Daughter-in-Law goes considerably beyond such avowed self-limitations. The frenzied anger of Minnie’s scenes as she confronts what she sees as her husband’s weaknesses goes far beyond “ordinary”, while there’s a sure dramatic sense that's at ease with occasional comedy, and equally skilful in creating dramatic frisson (two instances of wilful destruction are especially breath-catching).

But an uncertainty hangs over Minnie’s place in this world, how exactly her concerns, drawn from wider experience, fit into this confined environment (does Lawrence’s choice of title somehow even objectify her?). Coming into a legacy may have given her a degree of material independence, but more importantly it has changed her worldview. The result is that on occasions Ellie Nunn, not least because she feels the era’s female emancipation too, seems to be playing in a different register, that lack of connection rather hampering the creation of organic conflict.

But the sheer quality of the performances here may well leave you thinking this was a binary fault that Lawrence himself never quite resolved. Minnie may have her flights of fancy, but our attention in this production is really held by Veronica Roberts as Mrs Gascoyne, in tune to her hereditary certainties (“a man's a trouble pure and simple”) as well as the sadness that underlies them. Matthew Barker as Luther is the newcomer in this Arcola revival cast and, though he played Joe Gascoyne in the National Theatre’s 2015 DH Lawrence adaptation Husbands and Sons, remains rather trapped in this monosyllabic, almost non-verbal character.

We are left to hope against hope that, after their almost Strindbergian self-interrogation, some future real bond may grow between this unhappy couple. Matthew Biddulph is particularly winning as Joe: his nimbleness has somehow already transcended his circumstances and we feel that his departure from home, that significant move of Lawrence’s characters (and of the author himself), is only a matter of time. But perhaps our final tragic realisation is that the Great War lies only just around the corner, a future wrecking force about to be unleashed on a scale that will dwarf the internal strife that we have seen depicted with such power here.

The sheer quality of the performances here may well leave you thinking this was a binary fault that Lawrence himself never quite resolved


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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