There’s a real momentum around gender equality and women’s history at the moment. With Suffragette asking us how far we’ve really come in a hundred years and numerous personalities speaking out about the gender pay gap both in Hollywood and in business, there’s a huge spotlight on this issue. In a timely piece of theatre, the National presents Husbands and Sons, a dramatisation of three D.H. Lawrence short stories told simultaneously, covering two days in a Nottinghamshire pit community. As so often with Lawrence the primary focus is on the women – the wives, daughters and mothers of coal miners whose suffering is played out across these stories drawing an overall picture of the different kinds of hardships they endured – suffering contained within the family unit and rarely shared even with their close-proximity neighbours.
Lawrence can be so insightful about women and has a particular sympathy with the matriarchs that govern small community life which is the most striking aspect of the National Theatre’s new production. What makes this a valuable work is the way these three stories have been woven together to form a complete sense of the various lives going on and in particular a key Lawrenceian theme of difficult communication between men and women, especially married couples. In fact this is something that clearly unites the three stories, a frosty difficulty between all the couples represented while mother-son relationships become suffocating.
The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd tells the story of Lizzie, tortured by her husband’s excessive drinking and womanising, and driven to resent her lot in life. Her only motivation is to protect her son and prevent him from becoming his father, but as Lizzie keeps house she’s frequently interrupted by her mother-in-law and a local pit electrician who has a crush on her. This is probably the most poignant of the three stories as we see Lizzie, played wonderfully by Anne-Marie Duff, suffering endless humiliations and neglect from her husband (Martin Marquez). The scene in which he arrives home roaring drunk with two prostitutes that he picked up at the local pub is particularly painful for Lizzie and Duff displays her outrage, humiliation and pride superbly. Even when Lizzie is offered escape there is always the sense in Duff’s tender portrayal that it won’t last and she’s fundamentally rooted by a sense of innate duty to her home and marriage that perhaps even death cannot shake.
Next door, A Colliers Friday Night will probably be the most recognisable Lawrence tale that reintroduces many of the themes and plot points of Sons and Lovers. The Lamberts are a pit family headed by the redoubtable matriarch Lydia whose love for her son sets him on a high road to another kind of life. But one Friday night the latent tensions in the family come to a head as Ernest’s (Johnny Gibbon) new self-determination clashes with his mother’s hopes for him and he must decide whether he wants to shake free of her. Julia Ford infuses Lydia with all the suffocating worry of a mother eager to see her favourite child succeed, but also her performance taps into questions about the nature of class as she looks down on her husband (Lloyd Hutchinson) despite his ‘providing’ for them and idolises her son’s hoped-for escape.
The Daughter-in-Law in the final home nicely unites both the themes of the other two pieces as we see a newly married couple trying to get used to each other and find balance. The class element is there again as Minnie Gascoigne has essentially married beneath her and brings her own money while trying to adapt to what she sees as lesser manners. Louise Brealey initially seems brittle and unsure of herself trying to navigate around this strange world – both of marriage and pit life – only compounded by another obstructive mother-son bond that prevents Luther (Joe Armstrong) from adapting to his new wife. As tensions between the couple come to a head Brealey shows Minnie finding unknown reserves of strength and dignity to fight both for her own individuality and ultimately for her man.
Previously performed as a trilogy, the decision to run them side by side, cutting from one home to the next, is a risky one, but a decision that pays off in not only increasing the tension in each story by leaving the audience hanging as we move to another home, but also in giving a clearer picture of this way of life, trapped so closely together in tiny homes where all kinds of human drama is being played out. What is perhaps most striking about this production, and therefore offers the most insight into Lawrence’s work, is how lonely these women are. Deprived of other ways to participate in the world, their sole purpose becomes about the husbands and sons of the title. They are almost entirely contained in their homes and even when they hear the problems next door (which Director Marianne Elliott cleverly has her actors react to) they don’t go to help; the women are entirely alone.
Each of these tales has a story but the overall effect is not plot driven but rather seeing the daily lives of this mining community and the toll it takes on the women at its heart. Seeing the parallels and themes emerge across the three houses becomes as much a part of the evening as finding out what happens to them all. Not everything is entirely successful – at more than three hours it’s a long haul but you do only begin to notice this towards the end, especially in a couple of moments when you think it’s finished but then more scenes start. Also bizarrely in a reasonably realistic looking production the decision to mime a lot of the action like opening and closing doors or taking off coats is very odd and sits uncomfortably with Lawrence’s emotional realism – surely someone at the National could have stumped up for a few coats and racks. I sat in the gallery so didn’t participate in the musical chairs of the interval which is supposed to give audiences a different perspective; maybe it does but I didn’t find staying in the same place detracted from what I saw in any way. But these are minor quibbles.
What these women have in common is their strength. For all the physical endurance of their menfolk in the pits, it is the women who make life happen, who keep a household together and who build communities to live in. Lawrence’s women are often something to admire and in these three central performances their determination, pride and resilience in the face of incredible and often dehumanising hardship is striking. Oddly all these women ultimately get what they want but their experiences make them question its worth. Even the one story with the seeming happy ending is not all it seems, for whatever harmony exists now, this tri-partite production shows can only become what the other two houses represent.
Husbands and Sons is the latest in an increasing line of triumphs for the National Theatre offering an innovative take on a well-known author. Lawrence’s world comes to life so starkly in this production you’ll almost want to wipe the coal dust off your face as you leave. As productions go this also could not be timelier and as we are in a period of growing momentum to complete female emancipation this is your chance to see three great actresses playing three admirable women.
Husbands and Sons is at the National Theatre until 19 February. Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1