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The Theatreguide.London Review

Husbands & Sons
Dorfman Theatre  Autumn-Winter 2015-2016

One of the year's most theatrically exciting and emotionally affecting productions is the result of an extraordinary leap of imagination built on sensitive understanding of the raw material, inventive and insightful textual editing, and thrilling theatricality. 

Director Marianne Elliott, designer Bunny Christie and the actors who developed this project with them have taken three full-length plays by D. H. Lawrence, all set in mining villages, and edited them down to a single three-hour evening. 

But rather than play them as a sequential trilogy, they have interleaved the texts so that all three plays are going on at the same time. The result does not only do justice to each play but creates a fourth umbrella play that is in some ways the most powerful. 

To be clear, with the audience on all four sides, the stage is marked off through minimal props and sets into three homes, with action going on pretty continually in each. 

But the texts are so cleverly edited that a natural pause in one guides the audience to shift its attention to another, creating a cinematic cutting among the three plot lines. 

Individual sequences may last from a single line to several minutes, and what is happening silently in one home can reflect or bounce off what is being spoken in another. 

Director Elliott has also manipulated dialogue and added a few minor lines to allow each group of characters to acknowledge the existence of the others. That, along with some parallels and common themes, means that while each play has its own plot and characters, they combine to give a picture of life in a mining village. 

In all three stories men come home exhausted and filthy and wanting nothing more than dinner and rest, wives strive to settle for loveless lives while yearning for more, and children try to function within the very limited horizons their futures offer, while everyone lives in the shadow of poverty, loss of work and the dangers of mining. 

That's the overarching new play Marianne Elliott and her associates have created, and much of its power comes from the way the individual Lawrence plays, for all their differences, paint much the same picture. 

The title character of The Daughter-In-Law must fight her mother-in-law for the love, and the chance to make a man out of her feckless mama's-boy husband.

The mother in A Collier's Friday Night, with an unloving husband and uninteresting daughters, pours all her emotional neediness into her son, and is jealous of the girlfriend who might take him away. 

And the heroine of The Widowing Of Mrs. Holroyd is driven to wish her drunken brute of a husband would die, and then must deal with the emotional fallout of her wish coming true. 

The evening might indeed just as easily been called Wives And Mothers, were it not for the echo of one of Lawrence's most famous titles. 

There are, inevitably, some losses to the mash-up of three full-length plays. The complexity of Mrs. Holroyd's emotions after her husband dies can only be hinted at here, while the emphasis on the mother-son relationship in Collier's loses some of the texture of that play. 

And a directorial decision to have the actors mime taking off invisible overcoats or opening and closing invisible doors (with sound effects) is a little too precious for plays that rely on the imaginative creation of a solid reality. But those are cavils. 

In a large and excellent cast, Susan Brown and Louise Brealey as battling mother- and daughter-in-law, Julia Ford and Johnny Gibbon as too-close mother and son, and Anne-Marie Duff as Mrs. Holroyd stand out. 

But the real star of the evening is Marianne Elliott and the real accomplishment the creation of the fourth play out of Lawrence's three.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Husbands & Sons  - National Theatre 2015  
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