The English Touring Theatre tried their hand at adapting a text about love and classism earlier this year with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Now, months later, they’ve teamed up with Sheffield Theatres to bring to life another classic novel that deals with forbidden love and internal conflict: D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Famed for being banned for decades due to its profanity and sexual content, the novel’s notoriety blossomed into admiration and it was finally openly published in 1960. Now, ETT have brought it to life with the help of adaptor/director Phillip Breen, and I managed to see it on its stop at York Theatre Royal.
In short, Lady Chatterley’s Lover follows Constance Chatterley (Hedydd Dylan), an upper class lady in 1920s England, who’s trapped in a loveless marriage with paralysed husband Clifford (Eugene O’Hare). However, her world is turned upside down when she falls in love with a working class gamekeeper named Mellors (Jonah Russell), and the two embark on a passionate affair that spans the four seasons against the backdrop of a changing England.
First thing’s first: there are beautiful, well-constructed performances in this production. Dylan and Russell both approach and convey their characters with sensitivity, delicacy and a sense of respect that translate into beautiful characterisations of Lawrence’s literary symbols. O’Hare also gives a striking performance as a broken husband desperately trying to hide bitterness and inner turmoil beneath the skin, while Rachel Sanders complements it with a tender performance as his caretaker Ivy Bolton.
Beyond character development and portrayals, there are a few things about this particular adaptation that don’t sit right with me. Breen’s text appears to be constructed of filmic fragments that flit from scene to scene and moment to moment, which ultimately place jarring ellipses between character and narrative progression. Firmly punctuated by blackouts that form the backbone of Natasha Chivers’s lighting design, the overall effect comes across as clunky rather than sharp.
Moreover, I often found myself questioning such scene transitions throughout the first act: surely the director, Chivers and primary designer Laura Hopkins could have better utilised the unique power of theatrical storytelling to their advantage in adapting the text? Instead, the adaptation often comes across as unconfident and unsure of its own footing. Ensemble scenes between more prominent narrative elements, mainly the moments where class revolutionaries throw their anger out at the audience, become almost irrelevant rather than recurring motifs.
I must also question the decision to house this adaptation in a large theatre space like the Theater Royal’s Main House. Everything on stage feels a bit too internal, and intimate moments between the frequently nude performers get lost in the lofty airspace of the theatre. If this adaptation had appeared in the Studio venue down the corridor, then it would have packed twice the passionate punch this production is clearly trying to harness. As a spectator in such a raw live experience, it would have been quite remarkable to experience Lawrence’s narrative world in a more intimate setting, in keeping with the original tone of the text.
In light of these issues, however, there’s much to be gleaned from this production. It represents the responsibility required to be acknowledged by adaptors, and underneath the skin of a few questionable storytelling choices, Breen’s adaptation gleefully plays around with the novel’s original ideas. It exemplifies the novel’s original themes and, once you get used to its presentational style, this adaptation proves to be quite enjoyable. Though this production, like the original novel, might not suit all tastes, it certainly deserves a watch.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover is at York Theatre Royal until October 29. It tours nationally until November 26.
Photo: Mark Douet