Remember the nude wrestling scene in Ken Russell's film adaptation of Women in Love – the glistening bodies of Oliver Reed and Alan Bates locked in shadowy, gladiatorial combat before a flickering fire?
There is a farcical dry-run for that homoerotic episode in On the Rocks, the wittily perceptive new play by Amy Rosenthal (the daughter of Maureen Lipman and the late Jack Rosenthal).
DH Lawrence (Ed Stoppard) sets massive store by male friendship, desiring a blood brotherhood that combines spiritual and physical intimacy. So he challenges his chum, the critic John Middleton Murry, to a naked wrestling bout. Nick Caldecott's amusingly squeamish Murry agrees with reluctance and strips to his underclothes like the kind of boy who has always been excused games. He then finds himself flung around like a rag doll by the frenzied Lawrence and goaded to fight back. Eventually he loses his temper and punches the novelist in the face. The resulting black eye somehow takes the shine, for Lawrence, off their special relationship.
Rosenthal has had the bright idea of dramatising the real-life experiment in communal living that Lawrence drew on when he portrayed the two polarised couples in Women in Love. Set in 1916 in the Cornish village of Zennor, her play traces the unravelling of Lawrence's dream of establishing an isolated creative utopia wherein he and his German wife, Frieda, would share their lives with Murry and his partner, the New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield.
Rosenthal takes a few enjoyable liberties with the documentary record – the wrestling match, for example, is projected backwards from the novel. The great virtue of the piece, though, is that it does not indulge in easy satirical sneering. It's often very funny as it demonstrates the absurd self-contradictions and ironies inherent in most utopian schemes. But it also gives due respect to what drove Lawrence and his spouse to yearn for an idealistic haven.
In 1916, the novelist felt doubly alienated from England both because of the outraged and censorious reaction to The Rainbow and the monstrosity of the Great War. But, as we see here, the hope of a Cornish idyll was jeopardised throughout by the locals who harassed the couple because they suspected the émigré Frieda (all parodically provocative carnality in Tracy-Ann Oberman's humorous portrayal) of being a spy.
The play is wryly alert to the way that supposedly free and tolerant utopias tend to be authoritarian and woe betide those who don't measure up to the leader's exorbitant demands.
Lawrence is so busy preaching about the symbolic Phoenix who rises from its ashes that he immolates the chicken he is preparing for dinner. The uptight Murry and Mansfield (a nicely astringent Charlotte Emmerson) are subjected to mortifying exhibitions of marital violence that turn into open erotic foreplay. Murry is expected to go off for long, daily walks with the novelist, leaving Mansfield alone with her writing block and with the incompatible Frieda. Even while laying linoleum with Lawrence, he is pestered to seal a pact of Blutbruderschaft using a grubby grouting knife.
It's a shame that Clare Lizzimore's production is rather clunking and that Ed Stoppard saddles the Nottinghamshire-born novelist with an awful eeh-bah-gum Northern accent and fails to take us very far into the passionate sincerity of Lawrence's soul.
The play offers shrewdly connected insights into the nature of friendship and of utopias. In a fine penultimate scene, Rosenthal suggests that, with Murry as his emotional goal, Lawrence wasted the chance of deep intimacy with Mansfield. One man's utopia may be another woman's dystopia – "This isn't Eden! This is Cornwall!" she cries, when accused of being the sabotaging serpent. But she also tells Lawrence that she know how it feels "to be full of homeless, surplus love that hasn't anywhere to go". Rosenthal allows us to be stirred by visionary dreams and to recognise the emotional fascism that often goes with them.
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