Lawrence After Arabia
by Howard Brenton
It's now a few generations since David Lean, Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif gave us Lawrence of Arabia. Now Howard Brenton nips in with Lawrence After Arabia before the Chichester Festival Theatre's production of a separate much older play by Terence Rattigan, Ross, which was jettisoned after the movie went into production.
So younger readers may have to be instructed on the background (see link),and glamour of T E Lawrence, almost a British Boys' Own equivalent of a sexless Rudolph Valentino sheik. Indeed Lawrence is described so many times in Howard Brenton's new play as "stepping back into the limelight", we wondered whether there should have been an upper case "L" and if Charlie Chaplin was thinking of producing a movie about him many years before the well-known desert epic!
Set in the early 1920s in Bernard and Charlotte Shaw's luxury Hertfordshire cottage, Lawrence After Arabia covers the time T E Lawrence enlisted under a false name in the RAF, apparently trying to escape his fame (and the propaganda) as a derring-do British hero who allied himself with the Arab cause against the failing Ottoman Empire.
We have to confess a personal interest in this, as a relative married a Welsh Cambridge don who had also attended Jesus College, Oxford, was in the intelligence corps as an Oriental studies expert at the same time as Lawrence (and also knew his brother Arnold).
While we're no experts and have only done the slightest of research some years ago, it seems Lawrence was not as isolated and his company was much more diverse than many would assume. But this play isn't a close study of Lawrence.
It actually reminded us a little of Ronald Harewood's An English Tragedy, we've recently seen in an amateur production, although it would of course be misleading to identify Lawrence with the same politics. We should also say, as explained in Lawrence After Arabia, Lawrence turned down a knighthood (never let a fact get in the way of a good headline ;)!)
Curiously while Jack Laskey makes a quietly indiosyncatic and charming Lawrence wracked with guilt at his part in colonial double dealing, the Shaw household has the most punch in this play. The parallels between the myth of a Shavian heroine, in a work then in progress, and the hype surrounding Lawrence make for a convincing parallel as Shaw scholarship has uncovered.
It's a pity then that an aphoristic Shaw (Jeff Rawle) and his secretary Blanche (Rosalind March) are written as rather one note. Even if the suggestion does crop up that the image of Lawrence as portrayed in the play and other literature may itself be a figment of Shaw's socialist and anti-colonial imagination. This begs further questions about Shaw and his cohorts' promotion of Lawrence, questions which remain unasked in Lawrence After Arabia.
Shaw's wife, Charlotte, (Geraldine James), a wealthy woman and a powerhouse in her own right, is an intriguing character who deserves exploration.
However she is given rather disappointingly reductionist motives. Still, James does well to convey sensitive intellect despite some rather clunky dialogue. And hey ho, maybe Charlotte shares the fate of many a woman where biographers, at least in the past, have more of a stake in the male subject than those they rate as the supporting cast.
All in all, this feels like the bare bones of something or a pulling together of disparate elements focussing, for the moment, on Lawrence rather than a development of the Lawrence story.
It's proficiently directed by John Dove and all the actors acquit themselves well and don't bump into the furniture in Shaw's study designed by Michael Taylor! ;) But the switch from the study to the desert feels more like a slickly attractive school primer going over well-worn ground than revelation. An amber light.