LAWRENCE AFTER ARABIAat Hampstead Theatre
Here's Howard Brenton back again, doing what he does best, making an iconic historical figure a flesh-and-blood reality.
T E Lawrence a bit of a challenge in this regard, being something of a reclusive enigma as well as a self-aggrandizing fantasist.
Many of the factoids I recall about the man come from forty years ago, in Alan Bennett's Forty Years On – a memoir memorably delivered by John Gielgud. Nice to see these old friends again in this skilfully crafted play …
“Which is man and which is myth ?”
“I knew of Lawrence of course from his exploits in Syria, where he had been attached, though none too deeply, to the British Expeditionary Force.”
“Aurens the Arabs called him, for they are unable to pronounce their L's ...”
“He was taken for a Circassian eunuch ...”
“Shaw, or Ross, as Lawrence then called himself ...”
The action is set largely in G B Shaw's Hertfordshire home, beautifully realised, with photographic backcloth, in Michael Taylor's design, sliding off into the wings for the “garden of Allah”.
A fine cast, directed by John Dove, brings the characters alive. Not only Jack Laskey's gaunt, tortured Ross, but Jeff Rawle's “knobbly” Shaw, struggling to write St Joan, and Geraldine James's wonderfully touching, celibate Mrs GBS. William Chubb makes a ram-rod upright Allenby; Sam Alexander is the repulsive promoter hoping to cash in on Lawrence's celebrity.
The class divide, the home life of a great playwright - quince jelly and carrot cake - and above all Lawrence's guilt make for a thought-provoking, if not revelatory, drama. We see him promising freedom to Faisal and the Arabs, knowing that the region, far from being an Arab state with Damascus its capital, was to be carved up between France and Britain. As Brenton says more than once in the play, we are still reaping that whirlwind …