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Review of Lawrence After Arabia by Howard Brenton

Jack Laskey (T.E.Lawrence) in Lawrence after Arabia at Hamsptead Theatre
Jack Laskey (T.E.Lawrence) in Lawrence after Arabia at Hamsptead Theatre – Credit Alastair Muir

As much an object of intrigue to his fellow Englishmen as to his desert confreres, the extraordinary figure of T.E. Lawrence is once more under public scrutiny. Given his part in the 1916 Arab Revolt against the regional dominance of the Ottoman Turks and the national boundary drawing which followed, you could say that he has remained topical ever since. Now, of course, there is the extra stimulus of a hundredth anniversary. No wonder playwrights and directors have been drawn to the theme, with the result this year of two new dramas and the revival of a third.

First comes Howard Brenton’s Lawrence After Arabia. Its very title suggests awareness of the need to acknowledge, and then swiftly bypass, the much-disputed portrayal of T.E.L. , his personal and military history, in David Lean’s 1962 epic film Lawrence of Arabia. Instead of the languid narcissism of Peter O’Toole’s six-
feet­-two-­inches hero, nine inches taller than the man, Brenton offers us a more nuanced version. Here is someone made outwardly glorious by his role in Britain’s apparent triumphs in the Middle East, but inwardly tormented by the knowledge that his country, and thereby he also, had ratted on his pledge of Arab independence with the border impositions of the Sykes­ Picot agreement.

Hence he has been reduced, in his own estimation, from the liberator of an oppressed people to the secret agent of Perfidious Albion. As for his demeanour, he has all the swagger of a dormouse, seeming to conform to the American journalist Lowell Thomas’s description of him as having “a genius for backing into the limelight.” This is a phrase which is not surprisingly savoured by Brenton’s George Bernard Shaw, whose Hertfordshire house we find Lawrence visiting in the years after the First War’s end. While Lawrence courts anonymity by enlisting as “Aircraftman Ross” in the R.A.F., his host is engaged on the creation of his play St. Joan. As a result he is forever nipping off into his famous garden hut, then re­entering the drawing room with updates on the trial scene for the benefit of his stoical wife Charlotte and his indispensable secretary Blanche.

Some such dialogue may well have happened for real. Lawrence did indeed visit the Shaws at this time, and G.B.S.’s biographer Michael Holroyd has suggested that this strange, unorthodox man of action was as much in his mind as in his house during the writing of it. That would make sense; two driven visionaries betrayed by England – and obsessing the imagination of an Irishman. This dual focus may be rich in dramatic potential; it draws some dark marital comedy from Geraldine James’s celibate Charlotte Shaw, hopelessly smitten with the homosexual Lawrence and trying to get to the (no other word for it) bottom of his flogging and rape by Turkish soldiers at the Syrian fortress town of Deraa in November 1917. If she could unlock the truth, or otherwise, of that incident, she might surely come to a fuller appreciation of all that he chronicles in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom. She might even heal the self­-hatred which seems to drive, and be driven by, his sexual masochism.

A tall order, particularly when upstaged by the resident seer, her husband. One genius, as neither Shaw nor Wilde said, may enhance a household; two is overcrowding. And here’s the problem. The two Great Men weren’t made for cohabitation, and their stories start to get in each other’s way. The furniture of them clashes. Shaw enacted the role of himself so comprehensively that he truly was, and remains, a hard act to follow. That was the whole idea. Indeed, whenever he enters, or exits in John Dove’s production, it is with the false self­-deprecation of the licensed scene­-stealer. It’s a credit to Jeff Rawle that he gets some comic mileage from this ongoing mischief. As Lawrence, Jack Laskey follows the lead of the man he portrays by being at his most comfortable, most effective, when being at his least flamboyant.

Mentioned in despatches are William Chubb for his Field Marshal Edmund Allenby, a small – too small – masterpiece of restrained lampoon, and Rosalind March’s shamingly dedicated Blanche.

3 Star Review

Review by Alan Franks

Lawrence After Arabia, Hampstead Theatre until June 4th 2016.

Ross may have started life as an alter ego, but the late Terence Rattigan promoted him to eponymity. His play of that name opens next month at Chichester Theatre, directed by Adrian Noble and with Joseph Fiennes in the lead role. Like its subject, the play has had a vivid history and illustrious connections, starting its public life in 1960 in the West End with Alec Guinness as Lawrence and Harry Andrews as Allenby .

The plot has it that Ross’s true identity is being suspected by a man called Dickinson, who is convinced this is the same person he had seen at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference – which Lawrence did indeed attend. When Dickinson’s attempts to blackmail him over his true identity fail, he takes the information to the Daily Mirror.

Rattigan wrote it initially as a film script for the Rank Organisation, with Dirk Bogarde due to star. It never happened, nor did a later attempt with Laurence Harvey , abandoned once David Lean’s production was under way.

Like the Brenton and Rattigan versions, Jan Woolf’s, called The Man With The Gold, uses techniques of split time, with the crucial difference that her chronology embraces the present day. This enables a kind of dialogue between then and now, from which the consequences of the past are all too starkly visible in the fractured map of the present. Much of this present is located in a museum. A custodian of memory it may be, but even this task is not performed without a degree of internal warfare. The presentation of the experts’ exhibits is a matter of such importance that they cannot achieve it without much, highly entertaining, bickering, flirting and general emotional trading.

Woolf literally knows her territory as she was writer ­in ­residence with the Great Arab Revolt Project (GARP), taking part in the excavation of blown­ up railway tracks, buttons from soldiers’ uniforms and cartridges from their guns. On the evidence of a rehearsed reading at the Cockpit Theatre, directed by Philip Wilson (Grimm Tales, at the Southbank’s Bargehouse) , it speaks with power and passion about, inevitably, betrayal; not just betrayal of one person by another, or one nation by another, but of principals by their holders. Most dramatically, it conjures the person of Lawrence from the grave, giving him the chance to address us directly and debunk the myth industry which conscripted his ghost so lucratively. This is not an opportunity he can resist. Gold indeed.

Ross, Chichester Festival Theatre, June 3rd­ 25th 2016

The Man With The Gold, St. John’s College, Oxford, September 23rd; Jesus College, Oxford, and Newark dates 2017, to be announced.


  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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