Did you know that on Radio 4 there is a programme called “I’ve Never Seen Star Wars” It’s a show where Marcus Brigstocke talks to celebrities who have never seen or done something that the majority of the world has. I only mention this because if I ever became famous enough to be invited on the show, one of my things would be that I have never seen the film Lawrence of Arabia. Of course, I’ve heard of T. E. Lawrence but in reality know very little about the chap which is why I went along to the Hampstead Theatre to see Howard Brenton’s new play Lawrence After Arabia.
In the early 1920s at the home of George Bernard Shaw (Jeff Rawle) and his wife Charlotte (Geraldine James) there is an unexpected visitor in the shape of American journalist Lowell Thomas (Sam Alexander). Lowell is looking for Thomas Edward Lawrence (Jack Laskey) with whom he is meant to be out working the lecture circuit telling the story of Lawrence’s time in Arabia. Shaw, who is busy writing with his secretary Blanche Patch (Rosalind March) doesn’t want to be disturbed and it is left to Charlotte to deal with the aggressive American. No sooner has he been dispatched, there is another, more distinguished, visitor in the form of Field Marshal Sir Edmund Allenby, also on the search for Lawrence who has apparently enlisted in the RAF as an ordinary airman. Eventually the Field Marshal goes and Shaw can get back to “Saint Joan”. Or can he? Because walking over the lawn in his pristine RAF uniform is the man himself on an unexpected visit to the Shaws. Lawrence is a friend of the Shaws and they, well mainly Charlotte and Blanche, are currently reviewing his book “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” an account of his war experiences, including his time spent with Arab leader Prince Feisal (Khalid Laith) helping him in the Arab Uprisings.
Lawrence After Arabia on paper is an interesting concept. T.E. Lawrence himself is obviously a very interesting and complex character – a quick read through the programme will certainly reinforce that. However, by the end of the show, I really didn’t feel that I had learned anything about the man himself. I think that this was a problem with the writing which seemed to veer between comedy and a history documentary with possibly a little too much emphasis on providing historical detail. Aside from the writing, I would also take issue with Michael Taylor’s set design which worked up to a point but didn’t give the impression of being a lady’s sitting room – even allowing for the fact that the Shaws were socialists. I would also like to point out that Lawrence’s RAF uniform was distinctly iffy. The trousers didn’t match the tunic and, having gone through RAF basic training, I can guarantee that he would never have been allowed out of base with shoes as dirty as the ones he wore.
Ok, so I’ve picked up the negative aspects of the show from my perspective. On the positive, I have to say that the actors were on the whole very good in their respective roles. Geraldine James in particular was excellent as Charlotte managing to be a supportive wife to GB, steely eyed protector of Lawrence and faithful confidant for the lad all at the same time. It was great to see her on stage and playing her role so well. Jack Laskey played Lawrence well, although I’m not 100% sure he managed to bring Lawrence’s vulnerability fully to front until the last scene between him and Charlotte which was quite moving, if a little confusing, to watch.
On the whole I thought Lawrence After Arabia was an interesting play. I learned a lot of history about the Arab uprising and how the effects of the actions taken at the time still resonate today. I don’t think I fully learned as much as I would have liked to about T. E. Lawrence the man, but the play did stimulate my interest enough to do some research this morning on Lawrence’s history. The production is gently put together by Director John Dove and makes for an intriguing and thought provoking evening at the theatre.
Review by Terry Eastham
A HAMPSTEAD THEATRE PRODUCTION
LAWRENCE AFTER ARABIA
BY HOWARD BRENTON
DIRECTED BY JOHN DOVE
Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes including interval
August, 1922. The most famous man in England has vanished without a trace: T.E. Lawrence has completely disappeared. But in the idyllic calm of the village of Ayot St Lawrence, on the top floor of the home of Mr and Mrs Bernard Shaw, the ‘uncrowned King of Arabia’ is hiding – with slabs of homemade carrot cake for comfort.
Wearied by his romanticised persona and worldwide fame, disgusted with his country and himself, Lawrence is craving normality. But when you’re a brilliant archaeologist, scholar, linguist, writer and diplomat – as well as a legendary desert warrior – how can you ever be normal? And beyond the Shaws’ garden wall, nobody cares how he feels: England just wants its hero back. Can he ever return?