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The Theatreguide.London Review

Lawrence After Arabia
Hampstead Theatre  Spring 2016

Howard Brenton has written a play about T. E. Lawrence that tells us very little that anyone who knows anything about Lawrence (or reads the programme) doesn't already know, and has chosen a very old-fashioned style in which to tell it. 

There are a couple of provocative new ideas in Brenton's version, but they are not as big or as redefining as he thinks. 

A brief reminder: during the First World War the British Lawrence unified and led a loose band of Arab fighters in harassing raids against the Ottoman Empire, causing enough trouble that the Empire was unable to be much use to their German allies. 

After the War he was pulled in two directions, writing a self-mythologising memoir but also burying himself in the anonymity of enlisting as an ordinary soldier under an assumed name. 

Lawrence's story has, of course, been told before, in biographies, film and plays (notably Terrence Rattigan's Ross, which covers much the same ground as Brenton's). 

Everyone works with the same raw materials, everyone sees Lawrence's postwar search for obscurity as the big mystery of his life, and everyone turns to a specific particularly brutal event in the war as somehow the key. 

One of Brenton's original additions to the myth and I won't go into too much detail here is that the event never actually took place but was invented by Lawrence to cope with a guilt he felt the need to imagine himself punished for. 

Connected to that is an idea Brenton is not the first to raise (Lawrence himself introduced it) that by not honouring a pledge to give the Arabs an independent homeland to cover most of the Middle East but instead carving the area up into invented countries (Iran, Syria, etc.) dominated by the European powers, the Europeans (and the British in particular) created the mess we're in today. 

It wouldn't be a Howard Brenton play if it were not political, and his analysis of the past hundred years of Middle Eastern history carries some weight. 

But despite the fact that this is a big part of what he imagines Lawrence to have felt so guilty about, it all feels peripheral and imposed on the human drama onstage.

(In much the same way, pointedly having Shaw working on his play Saint Joan, about another romantic idealist betrayed by practical politicians, seems forced.) 

Brenton's vehicle for all this is a play structure that could have been written a hundred years ago. 

Set in a middle class drawing room, this is the sort of play in which characters achieve reams of exposition and backstory by asking straight-man questions of each other or reminding each other of things they already know, and leaving a character alone onstage to think about what's just been said leads inevitably to a flashback. 

Director John Dove moves people around smoothly, but is unable to guide them to much beyond generic characterisations, the feeling of watching a rep company with everyone typecast adding to the play's old-fashioned air. 

Despite a few awkward moments of outrage or despair, Jack Laskey finds little more to Lawrence than a boys'-own-adventure hero, while Jeff Rawle's GBS is a jolly Santa Claus always playing the role of GBS. 

The best written role in the play is Mrs. Shaw, imagined as a woman of spirit, sensitivity and compassion, and Geraldine James creates a real live (if a bit idealised) character that holds our attention no matter who else is onstage. 

Those who know little about Lawrence will learn some things that might even be true. Lawrence buffs will be intrigued by Brenton's few original touches. Students of quietly powerful acting can admire Geraldine James. That's about it.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Lawrence After Arabia - Hampstead Theatre 2016

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