This new adaptation of D H Lawrence’s notorious 1928 novel is convincingly acted, engagingly presented – and in its own way, quite thought-provoking, too. Simply staged, throwing focus on the characters and the knot of secret passions they share between them, it’s a worthy homily on the need for human connections in an increasingly dehumanised age.
But let’s be honest about this: Lady Chatterley’s Lover is famous for one thing, and one thing alone. So, yes, there is sex. There is a lot of sex. There is sex in the woods, sex on a rug, and eventually even sex in a bed – which is wheeled into place with incongruous reverence just before the interval. Characters get their kit off tastefully but determinedly, and the whole thing culminates in a retina-searing scene involving naked gambolling in the rain.
In any other play, this would be utterly gratuitous. Here though, it’s pretty much mandatory: a brave attempt to match the punch which Lawrence’s book must have packed when he first unleashed it on the world. Trouble is, a lot’s changed since the Roaring Twenties; it’s not that we’re unshockable now, but we’re outraged and offended by quite different things. During one particularly explicit scene, I did overhear an upstanding-looking gentleman rumbling in complaint – but only because a poorly-placed item of furniture was ruining his view.
Denuded of the controversy, the core of Lawrence’s plot is exposed for what it is: a faintly ludicrous soap-opera storyline, served with a side dish of melodrama. There were a fair few giggles among the audience on the night I attended, born not of shock or titillation, but of a realisation that lines which once seemed daring now sound overblown and trite. The wide-eyed performance style rather emphasises that effect, and there were moments when I genuinely wasn’t sure whether director Phillip Breen was playing for laughs – a dangerous ambiguity for any production to allow.
But in the scenes where everyone keeps their clothes on – and, to be clear, there are many of those – Breen cooks up a lot of thoughtful material for us to digest. His programme notes cite the centenary of the First World War as an inspiration, so it’s no surprise that the war-wounded Clifford Chatterley is one of the more compelling characters, complicit in his own cuckolding through a misplaced sense of duty to his ancestral land. Actor Eugene O’Hare is magnificent in this particular role, perfectly evoking the frustration and fear of a proud man in a broken body.
Clifford’s relationship with his nurse is fascinating too: profoundly ambiguous, it might be matronly, motherly, or something else again. Breen also throws some cleverly creative images into the mix, for example when he illustrates a sanctimonious society by having a violent punishment meted out against the backdrop of a hymn. And the ever-present drumbeat of social change is reflected well, with the economic turmoil of the post-war era literally bursting into the Chattereys’ cut-glass world.
More of that context – and less naked frolicking – would have suited me just fine. Ultimately then, I fear that Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a victim of its own past notoriety: the thing it’s most famous for is, in truth, the least interesting part of the whole. But this capable production gives you plenty to think about, talk about – and, generally, to understand what the fuss is all about. Lawrence’s concept may have lost its capacity to shock, but his underlying message is relevant still.