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Lady Chatterley's Lover

Phillip Breen, based on the novel by D H Lawrence
English Touring Theatre and Sheffield Theatres
York Theatre Royal

Jonah Russell (Oliver Mellors) and Hedydd Dylan (Lady Constance Chatterley) Credit: Mark Douet
Jonah Russell (Oliver Mellors) and Hedydd Dylan (Lady Constance Chatterley) Credit: Mark Douet
Eugene O'Hare (Sir Clifford Chatterley) Credit: Mark Douet

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is one of the most controversial books ever written. First published privately in Italy in 1928, the text was not made available in the UK until 1960, where it became the focus of a watershed obscenity trial. Within three months of being acquitted, the novel sold more than three million copies.

Although Lawrence’s novel has become notorious for its sexual explicitness and liberal use of profanity, this reputation is ultimately misleading. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is not a piece of pornography but rather a touching love story between a working class man and an upper class woman set in the class-bound milieu of post-WWI England. The fact that Lawrence had originally considered calling the novel Tenderness is highly revealing.

In the space of two and a half hours, writer and director Phillip Breen delivers a faithful albeit truncated version of the source novel. Constance (Hedydd Dylan) is the young, frustrated wife of Sir Clifford Chatterley (Eugene O’Hare) who has been paralysed from the waist down due to an injury he received in the First World War. The emotional and physical estrangement between husband and wife leads Constance to pursue an affair with their handsome gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors (Jonah Russell). As the lovers’ feelings deepen over time, this infidelity threatens to overturn both their lives.

Sex scenes are notoriously difficult to do well on stage because the results are often cringe-inducing. This is not the case with Breen’s production, which manages to stay true to the transgressive spirit of Lawrence’s original novel without being gratuitous. The love scenes, performed fully-clothed, are not merely titillating because the two leads play them as the awkward, desperate fumblings of two lost souls.

Breen does not shy away from dramatising the most infamous part of Lawrence’s novel, in which the naked lovers thread flowers in each other’s pubic hair whilst playfully referring to the wedding of their genitals (‘Lady Jane’ and ‘John Thomas’). The nudity does not feel exploitative because the scene successfully conveys Lawrence’s belief in personal and sexual freedom.

The effectiveness of the love story is largely due to the quality of the two central performers. As Constance, Hedydd Dylan is convincingly brittle in the early scenes and overwhelmed by love in the later ones. Jonah Russell gives an understated performance as Mellors, a simple man besieged by violent passions.

The rest of the cast are also strong. In the tricky role of Sir Clifford, Eugene O’Hara conveys both the character’s haughty superiority and his petulant self-pity. Will Irvine plays his four small roles with skill, and he is amusingly despicable as the Irish playwright Michaelis—Constance’s first adulterous lover—who chastises her for taking too long to climax. Rachel Sanders is pleasingly inscrutable as Sir Clifford’s nurse.

Laura Hopkins’s stage designs are highly effective. The play opens, for example, with dust sheets being removed from the furniture in the Chatterleys’ home, and there is a clear sense of life beginning again after the horrors of the First World War. The passing of the seasons is cleverly conveyed through the scattering and gathering of flowers on the stage.

The sparseness of the production design is enhanced by the clarity of Natasha Chivers’s lighting and Andrea J Cox’s evocative sound design.

I have some reservations about the production. By choosing to focus on the central love story, the political dimension of Lawrence’s novel becomes muted. Although Breen offers us fleeting glimpses into the social unease of post-war England, the rural mining setting of the original text is largely absent. Also, the brevity of certain scenes, particularly in the first half, means that the production occasionally has a staccato feeling.

Breen’s production offers the audience a tender love story, movingly told, and successfully dramatises many of the key issues in Lawrence’s infamous novel.

Reviewer: James Ballands