Saturday, 21 May 2016

Theatre Review: Lawrence After Arabia

There are few things more frustrating in my theatrical book as a wasted premise, especially when the premise is really interesting.

What became of Lawrence when he is no longer Of Arabia is a great premise. Super interesting, super politically relevant and with a hefty dollop of historical controversy chucked in for good measure. It should make for a great play.

And perhaps it does, somewhere. But Lawrence After Arabia, currently playing at the Hampstead Theatre, is not that play. Really, really not.

Image source.

In many ways the production deserves credit for taking such an interesting premise and making it so tedious. It’s genuinely quite impressive. I'm not someone who can fall asleep in the theatre but this had me very close.

I think the biggest problem seems to be that the writing, by Howard Brenton (of whom I am generally speaking a fan), is so literal, unsubtle and, in places, just clunky. A key bugbear of mine, and an example of some of the play’s issues more broadly, was the constant dismayed references to Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. Now, it’s absolutely valid to make the point that the way the British and French divided up the Middle East with literal rulers on a literal map is one of the biggest factors leading to the geopolitical clusterfuck that that region sadly is today. To make that point by having several of your lead characters wail the names of the three most contemporary and brutal examples of this again and again is not the way to make that point. I'm pretty sure that even the most dull witted audience doesn't need that level of exposition to get what’s being driven at.  There are frequent examples of this - of the audience being told in big, flashing, neon lights that a contemporary reference is being made - and for me it does both cast and audience a huge disservice. It becomes annoying very quickly.

My other major complaint about this production is not one that I get to make very often, thankfully: it just wasn't very well acted. I took a particular dislike to Jack Laskey in the title role, who for my money was wooden and stilted all evening (and also looks about 20 years too young for the part). Jeff Rawle was an entertainingly diverting G B Shaw, but his wandering accent started to grate quite quickly. Geraldine James, whose Charlotte Shaw was generally a merciful highlight, had the occasional wobbly moment, particularly in the climactic confrontation with Lawrence towards the end of the play. Mind you that confrontation contains some particularly wobbly dialogue - my favourite being a cringe inducing exchange on sexuality - so perhaps that’s to be expected. Khalid Laith as a charismatic Prince Faisal was the only actor who consistently won me over, impressive given some of the leaden dialogue he was given. Perhaps it was just an off night or perhaps I'm just spoiled these days, but I really expected better.

Other than Price Faisal there are a few other bright spots in this production. As always at the Hampstead, it looks fantastic and the staging is characteristically clever. The seamless transitions between Arabian desert and English manor drawing room are very well done. There are also quite a few good gags hiding away in the script. I particularly enjoyed the exchange between Lawrence and the Shaws about whether or not they really know anything about working class people, which elicits the response from Charlotte that ‘of course we do, we’re Socialists’. Got a very knowing laugh from the Hampstead crowd that one…  And John Dove’s direction keeps things clipping along at an admirable pace, bringing what is quite a complicated story in at just over two hours (including an interval, how unfashionable). Mind you if it was any longer I'm not sure I would've coped.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t recommend that you should spend any of your hard earned cash on Lawrence After Arabia, unless you suffer from insomnia and have tried everything else. Perhaps wait until Ross opens at Chichester, since from what I can tell it covers very much the same ground in a hopefully less soporific manner.

Lawrence After Arabia plays at the Hampstead Theatre until June 4th.

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