Hampstead Theatre, London – until 4 June 2016
A DESERT HERO AND THE ROOTS OF TROUBLE..
One glory of Howard Brenton as a playwright is his ability to tease out, in very specific history plays (55 Days, Ann Boleyn, Dr Scroggy’s War, Epsom Downs) not only universal emotional cruxes , but urgent contemporary relevance. While, invariably, keeping it sharp and entertaining. This one is both important and engrossing, a valuable addition to theatre’s centenary consideration of World War I and its aftermath.
It opens in 1922, in the living-room of George Bernard Shaw and his long-suffering wife Charlotte (brilliantly evoked as the sharp-witted decent woman she was, here by Geraldine James). Shaw is fussily, effusively busy dictating his St Joan, a subject which makes a neat parallel with the already iconic status of “Lawrence of Arabia”: the heroic British intelligence officer who fought alongside the Arab rebels against the Ottoman Empire, helping to turn the tide of the war in the Middle East.
Into the Shaw’s book-lined room, through a stripe of empty light which will later widen to become a desert (Michael Taylor’s unfussy design), comes our hero. Colonel Tom Lawrence himself, still only 34, crushed by his celebrity and seeking anonymity under the name of “Ross” as a lowly RAF recruit. He is bruised with helplessness , shame and a sense of dishonour because Britain did not – as he had rashly promised – give King Faisal and the Arabs their own state, capital Damascus, after the war. Instead when the Turks were defeated the Paris Conference drew a series of disastrously straight lines, disregarding tribal and cultural boundaries to create French and British colonial “mandates”. An arrogant mistake, which led to later rebellions, shaky nations, and much of today’s extremism and misery in the area. But hey, as Field-Marshal Allenby (William Chubb) drawls when the panicking Lawrence says he promised – “Oh, you say things round a campfire..”.
In flashbacks to his desert travels, and in imagined but credible conversations particularly with Charlotte, the high-strung torment of the hero seeking anonymity unreels before us over the next year, in which he was unmasked in his RAF role and pursued by the American reporter Lowell Thomas for whom his reluctant celebrity became a cash-cow (despite T.E. Lawrence’s refusal to illustrate the journalist’s vainglorious lectures by appearing, ideally in his robes). Sam Alexander gives us a wicked performance as Lowell Thomas, everyone’s nightmare foreign-correspondent jock; Shaw himself, nicely elusive, is played by Jeff Rawle and kept wisely just this side of caricature: never easy when playing that grand old stirrer (“I have written some of my best work in railway tearooms, they are temples of perfect peace”.
But the shining roles, and performances, here, are Geraldine James’ Charlotte, coolly intelligent, acidly sharp , and Jack Laskey in what should be a defining role as Lawrence himself. He has a nervy, secretive, sensitive yet soldierly edge, a hint of mania and sexual confusion, a credible schoolboy naiveté:. All that, all utterly credible and fascinating, not least in a late dramatic revelation not to be spoilt in review.
I caught this late, having been away. I would have been devastated to miss it, can’t understand the lukewarm tone of press night reviews, and I hope it goes further.
BOX OFFICE 020 7722 9301 to 4 June http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com