Arcola Theatre, London – until 2 February 2019
Known for classic novels about human relationships such as Sons and Lovers, Women In Love and The Rainbow, DH Lawrence also tried his hand at writing plays. The Daughter-In-Law – which was performed and received critical acclaim posthumously – takes place in the familiar region of Nottinghamshire where most of his novels are set.
One afternoon Mrs Purdy (Tessa Bell-Briggs) pays a visit to the home of Mrs Gascoyne (Veronica Roberts) and her son Joe (Matthew Biddulph) on a matter of great sensitivity. The urgent matter? Mrs Purdy’s daughter Bertha is four months’ pregnant and the father is Mrs Gascoyne’s eldest son, Luther (Matthew Barker). What really complicates things is that Luther has recently married another woman – Minnie (Ellie Nunn). So to keep this out of the courts and minimise the spread of gossip, Mrs Purdy wants a lump sum child support payment for her daughter.
Far from showing loyalty and support to her daughter-in-law, Mrs Gascoyne discusses at length the ‘curious on-off’ courtship of Minnie and Luther, and how in reality they’re ill-suited for each other. Mrs Gascoyne suggests that Mrs Purdy approach both Minnie and Luther openly and that between them they’ll be able to pay the child support – perhaps using some of the inheritance that Minnie has come into recently. However, even with Joe trying to assuage the situation, nothing turns out quite as planned…
In all of Lawrence’s writing, the aspirations of the women – in whatever form they take – are often at odd with their menfolk and the world at large. Unusually, Lawrence in the first half spends a lot of time with the family – in particular Joe and Luther, as we see and hear the differences between them. The play is well-cast and while the distinctive vocabulary of 19th century Nottinghamshire might not be familiar, the inflection of words and the non-verbal communication of actors are readily understood.
In terms of the play’s themes and plot, aspects are borrowed from Lawrence’s novels – especially when we compare the relationship of Minnie and Luther with Gertrude Coppard and Walter Morel in Sons And Lovers. The notion of an educated woman marrying someone ‘below her station’ is a theme Lawrence repeatedly returns to – something that Lawrence thought had happened with his own parents.
People of different temperaments often marry each other, but nothing puts a strain on a relationship than opposing opinions about money and what is of value. In one of the most telling scenes in the play, Luther and Mrs Gasgoyne’s reactions to Minnie’s excursion to Manchester has to be seen to be believed – an explosive irreconcilability regarding culture’s subjective value versus living on limited means.
The beauty of the play is that so much of the ‘truth’ that is assumed through hearsay is refuted later and that the person who seemed to have the least principles actually sees with greatest clarity.