Husbands & Sons simultaneously tells the stories from three of D.H. Lawrence’s plays; chopped, re-ordered and enacted side-by-side on the Dorfman stage at the National Theatre. Lawrence’s The Daughter-in-Law (1912), The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd (1914) and A Collier’s Friday Night (1934) are set in his hometown, Eastwood, a mining village on the border of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.
Working with Director Marianne Elliott, Power uses the parallel themes running between Lawrence’s three plays to unify the stories, highlighting the collective feelings of the women and men in each, and exploring the differing needs and expectations of wives and their husbands at the time. With similar themes – mining, alcoholism and a mother’s love for her son(s) – running like the rats between all three, Ben Power has created this adaptation partly in a bid to prevent the stories becoming repetitive to a modern day audience if told separately. Set in 1911, Power’s Husbands & Sons creates a mouthpiece for the sociopolitical issues of the Great Unrest in Britain.
As expected of a National Theatre production, the play boasts a strong cast, with particularly creditable performances from Anne-Marie Duff as Lizzie Holroyd, Martin Marquez as Charles Holroyd, Louise Brealey as Minnie Gascoigne, Susan Brown as Mrs Gascoigne and Lloyd Hutchinson as Walter Lambert. Particularly poignant is the claustrophobic love of the mothers for their sons. In the Gascoigne household, Minnie questions “how is a woman ever to have a husband when the men all belong to their mothers?”; a sentiment which is echoed in the Lambert household by Earnest (Johnny Gibbon), as he asks his mother whether liking apples means he can’t also like bread, in response to her fears that his feelings for Maggie Pearson (Cassie Bradley) have diminished his feelings for her.
Each kitchen is watched over by a mollycoddling matriarch, whose own husband is either dead or dissatisfied with his lot. These female figures resent the women their sons have partnered with and we see this in Mrs Gascoigne holding Luther (Joe Armstrong) from Minnie, in Lydia Lambert’s (Julia Ford) critical remarks about Maggie and in Holroyd’s mother (Sue Wallace) tutting at Lizzie not having dry, white socks warming in anticipation of her husband’s return. Indeed, Minnie’s story could become Lizzie’s, which in turn could become Lydia’s, if all parties lived long enough.
Husbands & Sons is fittingly staged in-the-round, with Bunny Christie’s set design comprising of three near identical kitchens, each with running water, oil lamps and a coal stove to boot, and Lucy Carter’s dim lighting creating a naturalistic setting. However, in contrast to this, props and costume that relate to the action going on around them, such as opening and closing doors, eating food and taking on and off outdoor wear, are left to be mimed as part of Elliott’s precautions against set detracting from story. Industrial grating runs stylishly between the kitchens and the four corners of the stage are crusted with coal from the mines. The large metal contraption – or lift into the pit – is particularly effective as it rises in unison to Ian Dickinson’s jarring sounds at the opening of the play and falls, plunging us into darkness, at the end.
The greatest accomplishment of this production, though, is the coexistence of Lawrence’s plays on the stage. Skillful selection on behalf of Power and Elliott gives us an intimate insight into the three families, and we hear shared cries of exasperation from their homes despite the fact their plots are kept separate. The three texts are beautifully intertwined, and the moments where our attention is grabbed away from one pocket of action – by a cough or a call for pudding in another frame – are appropriately timed throughout. Similarly, the drama in one frame is strengthened as the sentiment is mirrored in another, reinforcing the shared experiences of the wives across Lawrence’s plays. For example, as Minnie accuses Luther of allowing his mother’s love to suffocate him, Lizzie simultaneously hugs her son Jack in the Holroyd frame. There is just one moment when my vision of the main action, taking place in the Lambert household, is blocked by a background scene, in this case a drunken ‘trollop’ in the Holroyd house, swaying around her part of the set.
The moments when the characters do cross between plots are kept to a minimal, and are most successful in the first act when a drunk Walter Lambert and an equally drunk Charles Holroyd bump into one another between house and pub, and when a record played in Minnie’s frame is picked up and hauntingly sung by Duff’s Lizzie as she sits in a tree outside her home. In the second act, this is most effective towards the end, when rumours of the accident in the mine are murmured throughout the community. Unfortunately, however, the decision to drag Gertie (Katherine Pearce) into the Gascoigne plot as potential help around the house, seemed inauthentic and unnecessary.
Husbands & Sons is a genuine insight into the minds of the wives whose husbands worked ‘down pit’. Told in authentic dialect, we’re presented with a story that is humorous, anguished, and fuelled by Lawrence’s own memories of the mining community he left behind.
Husbands & Sons is playing the National Theatre until 10 February 2016. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website. Photo by Manuel Harlan.