Saturday, 2 August 2008


Only a few moments into On The Rocks, as DH Lawrence and Frieda von Richtofen are engaged in a dish-smashing brawl, I passed a note to my wife asking 'Was Frieda Jewish?' It got a cheap laugh from her, but the question hung over my enjoyment of the play, because what could have been a deeply felt study into questions of artistic desire and romantic desire, or love, friendship and domination, instead stooped at any opportunity to grab even cheaper laughs, and they didn't grow out of the story but were rather stale jokes (Frieda: 'what would Freud say of this?' Lawrence: 'Fuck Freud' Frieda: 'I would but he's in Vienna'--would Frieda have fucked Freud, given the chance? Would she have even said that?) that didn't fit the characters or the settings. It was as if the playwright, Amy Rosenthal, were channelling her father Jack's best work in hopes of reaching a familiar friendly audience.

The immediate inspiration for my question, however, was Tracy-Ann Olberman's struggle trying to play Frieda with a German accent, which in moments of stress or intended humour was straight-forward Yiddish, switching, when 1917 Hun was needed, to the 'Allo-Allo' phrasebook, and finally, in the really serious moments, to unaccented English, like Eleanor Bron in Women In Love. Meanwhile Ed Stoppard's DH Lawrence has an accent that sprints all across the north of England, and similarly settles into more received English whenever things get serious, like Alan Bates in Women In Love. Behind the beard I kept seeing Robin Williams. Yet it wasn't until Katharine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry arrived on stage to complete the quartet that I realised what was happening. The Famous Four from Literature were being used for a higher purpose.

That being to benefit children of famous theatre people, Amy and Ed, who must have said, like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland used to in those MGM musicals, 'let's put on a show and all our friends will come!' And the show they're putting on, ostensibly about great people, and big themes, is really little more than a Hampstead BBC version of Friends--or maybe a literary This Life, another version of Friends done by the daughter of famous writers--we could call it Our Friends In The Southwest, and wait for Egg, if not Feebs, to come strolling down the Cornish coast.

After all, what does your average NW3 theatre audience know about DH Lawrence? Big beard, pacifist, German battleaxe wife, Oliver Reed and Alan Bates wrestling naked, northern accent? They're all here, that and very little more. It's easy to take Nick Caldecott's tweedy schoolboy Murry and play with the closet homosexuality often seen in Lawrence, make him wrestle nude with DH in case the audience misses the point, but the crucial issue with Lawrence to Anthony Burgess was less sex than dominance, and that is something Rosenthal seems to miss. The famous encounter with the police over the packet of salt happens off-stage, and it's Frieda, not Lawrence, who is victimised and spars with them. It serves to emphasise Lawrence as Frieda's child, which is probably a good point as far as it goes, but when it goes any farther, when it should be looking at Lawrence's need to dominate her sexually and Murry in some proto-sexual way, the play covers its eyes.

Not that Caldecott and Stoppard are bad in their roles; it's that their performances seem aimed at the level of a university, if not neighbourhood, production. Which could be a telling comment about Lawrence and Murry from Rosenthal and cast, but somehow I doubt it. In fairness, it was billed as a comedy, and the poster showed four young people jumping off a cliff, like a freeze-frame from the opening of a TV show. So I guess we were warned.

Mansfield, as played by Charlotte Emmerson, remains an enigma. What drew Lawrence to her, or her to him? Attraction, respect, inspiration? We never find out. We find out very little about her at all, although in fairness to accents she does Mansfield's educated Kiwi well, at least according to my wife, who herself is one of those. Similarly, her relationship with Murry is portrayed as deeply unfulfilled for both of them: Murry wants no physical affection, Mansfield wants nothing but to be working again. What are they doing there? What are we doing there?
Clare Lizzimore directs the simple set as if dying for a few Feydeau moments, and you would have thought Rosenthal would have been pleased to provide them. It's all very earnest, when it's not trying to get boffo laffs, but this is a story which has become more interesting over time, as more material has become available, not more comical. And it deserved better than DH as Ross plus Joey, Murry as Chandler, Frieda as von Rachel and Katharine Mansfield as Monica plus Phoebe.

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