It’s always intriguing when faced with new appraisals of well-established figures as to what might be made of them, particularly when those figures have, over time, achieved myth-like status. Will they be kind or critical? Deferential, or debunked?
If the chatter among the audience was anything to judge, there was very much a sense of anticipation as to what might be revealed about one of England’s most infamous, and mysterious, heroes. Snatches of conversation revealed what people already knew – or thought they did – but Lawrence After Arabia would reveal a whole lot more.
What we do know about T E Lawrence is informed by popular and populist media – need I mention Lean’s film? – and, perhaps tellingly, his time in Arabia might already be taken as writ as a result. So, here, Howard Brenton – no stranger to penning revealing plays about establishment figures (Churchill, MacMillan et al) – decides to focus on what happened after.
The setting by which he and Hampstead veteran, director John Dove, do this is relatively straightforward. The action moves between Bernard Shaw’s house (yes, the George Bernard Shaw), where Lawrence retreated to review the manuscript for his book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (he was a much feted member of the literati himself, entertaining E M Forster, Henry Williamson and Edward Elgar among others in later years) and key incidents in Arabia during the war, told through flashback and a cannily simple set change.
There are some lovely touches; setting it at the Shaws provides ample opportunity for some comedic moments and dialogue flourishes – particularly from Shaw, who was scribbling Saint Joan at the time, battling with his po-faced secretary, Patch. In fact, it is as much an endearing portrait of Shaw – I’m sure Brenton has been kind – played in a delightfully avuncular manner by Jeff Rawle, as it is a revealing, dichotomic portrait of Lawrence.
Jack Laskey is commendable in the titular role, if a little theatric in places, and succeeds in delivering a depiction that carries us with him, with the ensemble cast, including Geraldine James, William Chubb and Rosalind March, adding plenty of colour to what little we really might have known of the man. Lawrence is at once shadowy yet radiant, conflicted and enigmatic, loved and regarded with suspicion in equal measure, and his ambiguous sexuality is addressed as a contentious issue – as it would have been then – and tantalising hinted at as something that ‘happened at Deraa’.
Brenton describes it himself as ‘an onion play’ – a simple centre (the revelation of what happened at Deraa) with layers revealed as the action progress. We open in 1922 as Lawrence, under a pseudonym, has enlisted as a private in the RAF, pursued both by the paparazzi (including the man who effectively created his image, US photo-journalist Lowell Thomas, here portrayed as the villain of the piece) and the establishment alike, in the guise of Field Marshall Allenby, each paying visits to the Shaws in an effort to find our elusive hero.
The action trots along in this manner like a Sunday afternoon matinee, painting a romantic picture of his heroics when, quite swiftly, ten minutes from the close, it spirals into the big dramatic reveal. It’s edgy stuff; out comes the conflicted spy, the masochistic homosexual, and an overwhelming sense of guilt-ridden betrayal. Like any elephant in the room, its arrival can seem dramatic, but we all knew it was coming – so no plot spoilers here – but, as swiftly as it is delivered we’re back into the familiar, rather more gentle, drawing room banter.
Fortunately, there’s little in the way of debunking in Brenton’s play. If anything the myth is enhanced; early on there’s a transformative scene during which the lights dim, orchestral strings add an ethereal air, and Lawrence slowly opens a suitcase to reveal his Arab robes. It’s just what we want to see. And more. Brenton reveals more of the man, coaxing a tangible personality out of preconceptions, making him plausible, real, human. Something that perhaps comes unexpectedly.
As is said in the play, “it’s a funny thing with heroes – they’re not meant to be human”. In Lawrence After Arabia, human he very much is, and yet remains wonderfully heroic.
Lawrence After Arabia runs at the Hampstead Theatre until 4th June 2016. Tickets start at £10. For more information, and to book tickets, visit www.hampsteadtheatre.com.