Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Review: 'The Daughter-In-Law' at the Arcola Theatre, 21st January 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Written in 1913, DH Lawrence's The Daughter-In-Law teeters on the precipice of modernity. Set in a Nottinghamshire mining town, its characters unknowingly look down the barrel of the Great War while being rooted in traditions and languages that feel as if they're hearkening back to the Iron Age.

This working-class domestic drama revolves around newlyweds Luther and Minnie (Matthew Barker and Ellie Nun), Luther's brother Joe (Matthew Biddulph) and their mother (Veronica Roberts). A handful of weeks after he's married, Luther is stunned to find out that a drunken encounter with the daughter of Mrs Purdy (Tessa Bell-Briggs) has resulted in a pregnancy.

This chucks a bomb into their ordered world, blasting right through the firmly established social fabric of the mining community. It throws up questions of proprietary in which Luther must grapple with preserving his marriage and doing right by his impending child, with his mother trying her best to navigate a path through it. Meanwhile, Minnie's expectations of what a husband should be are blown to smithereens, throwing Luther's existing flaws into stark relief.

It's a decent story and, after a slightly slow opening scene, keeps the audience engaged. But while the narrative is the engine of the piece, there's an awful lot of interesting stuff going on around it. Most interesting to me was the palpable sense of the modern world struggling to be born. Rumbling away in the background of the story is the miner's discontent, which eventually boils over into a strike. Luther and Joe both participate in this to the point of violence against scabs (or 'blacklegs'), and you sense a burgeoning political consciousness rooted in experience and a sense of injustice rather than dry theory.

Lawrence balances the men's work at the pit with the women's domestic lives at home - each portrayed as strenuous in their own ways. It's a contrast that's neatly conveyed in an early scene in which Luther returns home caked in soot and eats dinner before cleaning up. Face and hands jet black, he looks like a negative image of his wife, who shudders as he breaks bread with his filthy fingers. And yet, for a moment, the pair harmonise with one another - demonstrating an equilibrium between the professional and domestic spheres.

The harmony doesn't last for long. Luther's masculinity comes under threat and Minnie makes a sorta-feminist break for Manchester, from which she returns in an outfit that makes her look like she's arrived from a different century. From this point, the play begins to ponder what men and women truly mean to one another (albeit from a 1913 perspective). Luther and Joe's mother hits the nail on the head when she explains that her love of her sons is balanced against the pain and fear they bring. 

It's a conclusion that feels universal - and despite the play being at a precise point in time and space it appears weirdly ancient. Geoff Hense's low lighting could be dim electric bulbs, gaslights or candles burning in the gloom. Louis Whitmore's set, anchored by a heavy wooden dining table, manages to be both naturalistic and suggestive of vast swathes of historical interior design at a stroke. The costume design, especially of the older women, also feels strangely archaic, with Mrs Purdy's flat leather hat looking like something that could be worn in the medieval era.

And then there's the language. The Daughter-In-Law's programme comes with a glossary helping you decipher the dense dialect. Most of it you can work out from context, but the characters often drop terms like "clunch", "flig" or "clat-fart" into conversation. In addition, they talk quickly and with a precise enunciation that requires you to pay attention to everything they're saying lest you lose the thread. I don't know how prevalent this dialect is now, but it goes a long way towards making the situation alien to a modern audience.

With all this going on it's difficult not to ponder how much the world of these characters has been obliterated. On the plus side, the rigid gender roles that the characters struggle against are now much more flexible, marriage is not a life sentence and we live in a more permissive society. And yet there's a strong sense of identity and community in The Daughter-In-Law that's now a quickly fading memory. 

The characters talk of their pride in the engines of industry moving in their towns, the never-dimming light of the factories and the pride in the quality of their labour. This is just a memory now: coal mining and the communities it supported are extinct in Nottinghamshire. In their place lies a yawning void of zero-hours contracts, social deprivation and political disillusionment. I wouldn't want to live in the world of The Daughter-In-Law, but even so, I mourn its passing.

The Daughter-In-Law is at the Arcola Theatre until 2nd February 2019. Tickets here.

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