Written by Alison Collins
Image Credit: Mark Douet
Lady Chatterley’s Lover started its life as a “banned book”: a novel that was published in Britain in 1960, over thirty years after its initial publication date, due to laws surrounding obscenity. It has been reincarnated numerous times, through the medium of film, television drama, and – last but not least – theatre. Nearly one hundred years after its initial publication, the question remains to be asked: does this text still have the same power to shock and enthral audiences, changed as they may be? The short answer is yes.
This production, adapted by Philip Breen from D. H. Lawrence’s now classic novel, is – frankly – beautiful. The set that first appears barren, with undistinguishable props covered in dust sheets, comes alive throughout the performance with scatterings of wild flowers and a ceiling that genuinely rains. This is aided in a large part by characters that are painted as vividly as if they had stepped from Lawrence’s own mind. The passionate and troubled Constance Chatterley (Hedydd Dylan), physically and emotionally crippled Sir Clifford (Eugene O’Hare), and rugged Oliver Mellors (Jonah Russell) – come alive. They live and breathe (and orgasm) on stage, as countless readers could have imagined and even fantasised over the years.
One question that pervaded my mind before entering the theatre was – how would this text situate itself in this cultural climate? With “literature” such as 50 Shades of Grey becoming one of the highest grossing works in history, sex featuring prominently in all genres, even seemingly innocent music videos… would this work, as a play, still have the power to evoke a genuine reaction in an audience so seemingly desensitised to sex? Again, the short answer is yes. Absolutely.
One thing that struck me in particular, in watching this performance, was the juxtaposition between sex and violence. A modern audience, is quite familiar with vivid and realistic representations of violence. A number of dramas focus heavily on gore and blood. Even before the watershed, there are many programmes that focus solely on this topic, displaying real and graphic examples (in the flesh, if you’ll pardon the double meaning) and genuinely violent images. Before 9pm however, an audience would be hard pressed to find a remotely near-explicit mention of sexual intercourse, let alone a realistic representation of such. Sex scenes are largely airbrushed, often with the addition of a cheesy romantic motif, careful and clever camera angles, leaving much to the imagination.
The exact opposite is the case with this production.
Violent scenes are heavily stylised – though that is not to say that this makes them any less impactful. Sex, however, (which arguably performs alongside the principal cast as one of the main characters in this production) is raw. Encounters between Constance and Mellors are enhanced with a brightly lit stage. They are intense, almost uncomfortable to watch at times. The audience – like Sir Clifford, who appears upstage, unseen and unseeing on numerous occasions – is treated as a voyeur. It is artful, but uncomfortable. It is real.
With full-frontal nudity, this production could be excused for relying on its shock factor – after all, as the adage says; “Sex Sells”. But what sells more than anything else is the beautifully raw depiction of human vulnerability, with physical closeness as the window into that particular element of life.
As Clifford cries into the chest of his carer; as Constance lovingly mocks her partner’s midlands dialect; as the light falls on the characters individually throughout the play: I was aware of a sense of suspension in the audience. It is very easy to care about these characters, and the beautiful way in which they are depicted. It is very easy to lose oneself, as must have been the case years previously and since; furtive glances at forbidden pages to full-frontal nudity on stage.
This is a play of subtlety where it matters most, and agonising detail where it matters even more.