Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Husbands & Sons – Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 29/02/16]

It’s interesting, isn’t it? In all the press hoopla surrounding Cleansed, it feels like we’ve been asked to ask ourselves a lot of questions about incomprehension and difficulty and so on. And it’s all felt a bit bogus to me. I mean, no, sure, I don’t *actually* know what Kane was driving at, and nor – really – do I really claim to know what Mitchell wanted her production to *achieve*. But, discomforting imagery aside, I actually felt completely at home with Cleansed. I get Cleansed. Cleansed is what I expect to see in the theatre. I never had the moments of thinking: “What is the point of this?” “Why are we being asked to look at this?” “Who on earth is this for?” that I did last night in Husbands & Sons.

Now, that needs *a lot of clarifying*. I know those questions can be used as an end unto themselves. Like, just asking those questions – or feeling you have to ask – means the production has “failed”. I don’t think that at all. I don’t think this is “a failed production”. Far from it. I think they are interesting questions to ask about productions. And it’s interesting when the answers don’t feel pre-packagedly available. But I did honestly find that I spent almost the whole 3hrs (inc interval) running time wondering about what the production *was*. (Although that’s possibly just because that’s the sort of thing I like to do.)

By “what the production was”, I suppose I primarily mean in terms of genre. At the level of information, we know that Husbands & Sons is Ben Power’s amalgamation of three plays by DH Lawrence into one evening of theatre. Being a lazy critic, I didn’t seek out and read the three individual plays before seeing H&S. Or we could charitably see that as being an “experiential critic” by preference – a critic who’d rather experience the thing, rather than go in loaded with too much information.

The question of what’s been amalgamated and how is fascinating, and being “experiential” feels, in retrospect, like the wrong choice. My educated guess is that each of Lawrence’s plays is a kind of family melodrama, taking place in settings that can reasonably be knocked through into three separate adjacent homes in one mining village. Such, we presume, are the similarities of milieu, that it doesn’t radically upset the original intentions of the playwright to do this. (*Obviously* I don’t care about the playwright’s original intentions, but it feels like this is the sort of production that might: i.e. it seems fair to presume that it’s not like Power has just taken the equivalents of An Ideal Husband, Deep Blue Sea and Off The Endz and put them all in miners’ cottages regardless.) This does make it look a bit like the original plays might have been a bit thin for modern tastes. I can certainly see the merit in Power (or director Marianne Elliot’s) original thinking for wanting to run the three dramas together to create something a bit more rugged and sub-plot-y. But then, I don’t know what’s been cut in order to allow this to happen. Maybe it’s like running three Ibsens together, but cutting so much off them that Nora, Hedda, and Ghosts all look a bit thin on their own. Who knows?
(A: anyone who’s read the originals, Haydon. That's who.)

It wasn’t until the end that I finally really appreciated that this is both a really elegant idea – the sort of thing that used to be incredibly exciting when Ben and Rupert did it at Headlong – but also, at least in this instance, something that creates no small number of additional problems in terms of the text that we’re left with.

It’s an interesting way to come across Lawrence as a dramatist. I’m pretty certain I’ve never seen anything of his before, and am not even especially well-versed in either his novels or his, er, verse. I think I was unfortunate in that I read John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses while I was doing my A-Levels, and it gave me a compellingly argued, enduring mistrust of Lawrence (and Arnold Bennett and George Gissing, and all that lot). Carey’s basic premise is that Lawrence is essentially a not-very-closeted Nazi, and we’d all be a lot better off giving him a wide berth. Carey backs up this claim with lucid argument and close-reading. I’ll just park it here for the time being. But, almost a hundred years down the line, it doesn’t take a genius to pick up on the apparent veneration of blood and soil (or rather blood and coal here). Nor on Lawrence’s apparent mother-fixation, which may or may not have been influenced by early psychoanalysis. And on his disquieting Jungian tendency toward symbolism.

It’s interesting. We don’t really seem to have this model of playwright-as-philosopher these days. While, yes, it’s true, we definitely have theatremakers highly influenced by modern philosophy (or not-so-modern Frankfurt School types), I’m not sure we’re used to seeing *ideas* advanced seriously in the way that I believe they’re being advanced here. Sub-Nietzschian ideas, sure, but ideas nonetheless. Big, bold takes on the world; on: How Things Are, and: Why.

Maybe as a result of having no modern equivalent, we tend to take the ideas themselves less seriously. And I might be doing Lawrence a disservice. Maybe the ideas he puts into the mouths of his characters really are just ideas that he wants us to know that they believe, rather than important romantic notions that he wants put into the world. But you get the feeling that, originally, ideas like men deciding to die in an accident as a way to say “fuck you” to the women in their lives were meant to land with some weight, rather than be squinted at a bit. “Really, Mr Lawrence?” I thought more than once.

As an interesting aside: in the row behind me, I had a brilliant family – all women, I think; five of them – who unobtrusively, sporadically commented to each other on the action throughout the evening. Like Hamlet in The Mousetrap, they were as good as a chorus, annotating the vintage morality for the modern viewer. When Lizzie Holroyd’s (Anne Marie-Duff) bullying alcoholic husband is killed, and she and her would-be lover are left alone with his corpse, the judgement from this chorus was “She must be so happy right now”. The character on stage wasn’t. But that perception that she should be struck me as vital. Lawrence doesn’t half overload his characters with morbid beliefs and superstitions. And this production didn’t quite make us feel them.

Another aspect of the production, which my personal chorus highlighted for me, was the drunk-acting. Yes, there is a fine and hard line between the comic and the horrific in the extremely drunk. But here it felt that the really frightening level of threat had been missed, and what might have been the motor of one of the dramas remained at the level of the comic. Perhaps that was intentional, though.

The acting in general varied wildly across the stage – although, my God, I would have killed for this production to have been on a revolve so we hadn’t had a fixed perspective on all the houses. I understand that in the Dorfman it would have been fixed, but here there seemed no reason not to bring each of the houses in turn under our noses, so we could have experienced both the close-up and distant versions of each scenario. As it wasn’t, it’s quite hard to compare the close-up details you experience in one house, with the relatively tiny figures right the other side of the stage.

The design of the production (Bunny Christie) does look brilliant. A kind of spiky modernist floorplan with period fittings. But the lack of doors and walls leads to a lot of miming (with sound effects – Ian Dickinson), which is executed with varying degrees of success. This miming (and its varying levels of conviction) is extended to *some* clothes (coats and hats, but not different pairs of trousers), *some* liquids (tea is out, washing water is in), and some solids (knives and forks: yes, food: no; bread in a basket: yes, bread in the oven: no; some prints to burn: yes, the fire that burns them: also yes. And so, illogically, on). This acting/design interface also fed back into my genre-anxiety/taxonomical perplexity.

What sort of production was this? (And should I care?) Was it naturalism? What was the acting style? There was an added difficulty that there was a lot of accent-acting going on. Some people had totally nailed it. Some people warmed into it. And some people seemed to make the introduction of the accent into the performance just about the most mannered and distracting thing imaginable (or it was their real accent and they were doing something very abstract indeed beyond that). I mean, I’m all for non-RP in theatre, but it needs to sound natural, surely? And this, to me, didn’t in every case. (I mean, given that it the aim was (I presume) theoretically a historical accent that no longer exists anywhere, I do see the difficulty of nailing it. But at that point, if you can’t get the whole cast to sound like they’re from the same place, at the same period in time, then that’s an issue.) Beyond that, some people performed some of my pet hates and others were fluent and completely believable throughout. And I don’t like picking on individuals. Fuck it. It’s fine. I’m sure most people wouldn’t even think to question it, even if experiencing a disconcerting feeling that the thing in front of them wasn’t quite behaving with consistent internal logic.

Lawrence’s texts – I’m assuming most of the words spoken are him not Power – are also slightly difficult, in that they’re not necessarily full-on naturalism. Perhaps this is the thing that the set is helping to convey. That well, duh! sense that *it’s theatre*, and so *a bit heightened*, or something: they’re speaking in such a way that requires us to imagine their coats.

Which brings us stumbling back to those questions of “what?” and “why?” that I started with. It felt like the primary purpose of this production was excavation and renovation. It’s interesting, because, really this is England much more doing “the German thing” than Cleansed was. Because a lot of The German Thing is the spectacle of a theatre culture struggling with itself. With its extant works. With the fact that what theatre does is to stage plays: plays from the past in the present. I mean, that’s not the whole story, but it is one reason why I find so much German theatre compelling: that it dramatises that struggle. The struggle to put on the obsolete, or problematic, or superseded work of art. As Art. And the Art that it puts on is the art of the struggle. Perhaps.

In Britain, we maybe tend not to problematise extant plays quite so hard. It certainly doesn’t feel like we approach them as a problem *as a matter of course*. (Or perhaps we have smaller names for aspects of the problems. Names like “relevance” or the questions “Why here? Why now?”) Here, it feels like the problem is present and still creeps round the edges. Sadly (to my mind), it doesn’t feel like the problem/s have been acknowledge as such in the production per se. But I wonder if this is what I found most disconcerting about the production as an evening at the theatre. Was it that it hadn’t pandered to the usual mode of British theatre, and hadn’t underlined explicitly why I was watching it, with reference to “relevance” and “topicality”? Or was it that they hadn’t staged the struggle?

Of course, there is beyond this the nature of the work itself, which on some levels, did just remind me of the bits of Scott & Bailey between the policework. (Thanks to Happy Valley S2, I’ve been mainlining all the Sally Wainwright that the internet will give me access to). Which in turn throws up some interesting questions about the erased line between popular culture and Art in Britain. Sure, DH Lawrence probably thought of himself as an artist. But his plays don’t really resemble “art theatre” as we might understand it, post-Beckett. The production, meanwhile, looks quite a bit like what we allow pass as art(-y/-ish) theatre in Britain. So maybe that’s an issue? There’s an irony that were the plays staged as slavish fourth wall naturalism, they might, these days, look *more* like “Art Theatre” than this “art theatre” does – such is the pendulum of fashion. (Of course, fourth-wall naturalism is impossible at the Exchange, anyway; because the first three walls are absent. Which is interesting in and of itself.)

So where are we now in the long ramble? Probably some people are irritable about the over-reliance on Cleansed, Germany, and the troublesome opposing of Art and Popular (because of sodding class, as always. Look: I’m not saying either excludes anyone. Just that they might be two different things with two different sets of aims and objectives, and that there’s no harm in being able to talk about them as separate).

Maybe I should just stop here.

Go and see Husbands & Sons at the Royal Exchange! If you’re not me, it’s probably great! You won’t worry about a single thing I have! It’s got three stories rolled into one! From the past! But with modern-looking effects! And the houses don’t have walls! And there’s acting! And people’s emotional lives! Which they mostly can’t solve because the workers lack autonomy!

Actually, yeah. Maybe that’s what’s difficult about it. You go, and you look, and you think: “Blimey, I’m glad I don’t live in a community. Bloody communties, eh? Bleugh. What thwarted lives the workers lived.” And you do get the impression that’s kind of what DH Lawrence thought, too. They’re plays from that difficult period of history when “socialism” ostensibly meant criticising everything about the working class, and writing plays that suggested they’d be much better off being emancipated, middle class, Nietzschean super-persons.

Maybe it’s quite contemporary after all.

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