Hampstead Theatre, London (***)
This is a strange subject for Howard Brenton if only because T E Lawrence (aka Aircraftman Ross and later T E Shaw of the Royal Tank Corps) is one so indelibly associated with the film and the Rattigan play, coincidentally being revived next month at Chichester.
What fresh insights could Brenton bring to a subject so well tilled?
Frustratingly it’s something new, something old. Part history play, part literary, psychological puzzle, something new comes by way of T.E as a hook to explore false memory. T.E, suggests Brenton, made up his account of rape and torture at the hands of the Turkish Bey at Deraa out of guilt at playing the double agent: a spy for the British Army and freedom fighter alongside the Arabs in the Arab Revolt.
Brenton is fairly unequivocal on Lawrence’s dual role but at the play’s centre is the relationship between Lawrence and the Shaws – George Bernard Shaw and his wife Charlotte, editor of one of the versions of Lawrence’s acclaimed novel, the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a `celibate’ who falls in love with `Tom’ Lawrence, a frequent visitor to their home after his return to Britain.
Lawrence appears to have been as ambivalent towards his literary opus as he was to himself – all of which is fascinating where the Lawrence/Charlotte relationship is concerned, less so with GBS and the American photographer, Lowell Thomas who made Lawrence famous with his iconic photos of Lawrence in Arab dress. Both seem peripheral characters and underwritten.
More dramatically effective if familiar in John Dove’s cleverly designed production (the photographic past eliding into the present) are scenes between Lawrence and Khalid Laith’s leader of the Arab Revolt, Prince Feisal.
Jack Laskey, a doppelganger for the late, great Ian Charleson doesn’t quite encapsulate the introverted exhibitionist the play is at pains to paint him though Geraldine James nicely hints at Charlotte’s complex feelings for him.
As a reminder of French and British duplicity, the whirlwind of which we are now reaping (as foretold by Lawrence), it couldn’t be more timely. Typically Brenton is perceptive about the possible longterm effects of the Arab experience on its protagonist, but by his own high standards, it grips neither as strongly or fiercely as the recent Anne Boleyn play or Doctor Scroggy’s War.
Lawrence After Arabia is at Hampstead Theatre, London to June 4, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate, May 2016