The Fight For Barbara, Theatre Royal, Bath

Life with the Lawrences
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The Independent Culture

The first of three triangular dramas in Peter Hall's summer season, The Fight for Barbara is the least known - the others are Design for Living and Betrayal. Despite its distinguished authorship, it is also the slightest. DH Lawrence wrote it in 1912 while the events it describes were taking place. He and Frieda Weekley, the married daughter of an aristocrat, had eloped to a village near Lake Garda, where she had to get used to living with a poor writer, the son of a miner. The characters in the play fit this description, but they also receive visits, from Barbara's mother, then her father, and, last, her husband, all urging her to come home.

Lawrence spent only three days on the play - he was occupied the rest of the time finishing Sons and Lovers - and never revived it. In 1967 a cut version (the only one then available) was finally performed in London; the present one is taken from the original manuscript, but the missing text does not make much difference. The Fight for Barbara has moments of interest, but it is dated, at times embarrassingly so, and its themes and insights are muffled and sketchy.

For its time, the play was extremely frank - the lovers are treated sympathetically, and the writer, Wesson, argues persuasively that, although Barbara's husband, Frederick, loves her and has given her everything she wanted, that doesn't matter if he hasn't made her happy. If Barbara returns to her husband, the play powerfully says, she would not only be throwing away her own life but his - his sacrifices have been pointless, and it would be cruel, now that she knows what love can be, to let him keep making them. Indeed, many may find that Frederick, though an unattractive character, turns out to be the most complex. In his interview with Barbara, he keeps flickering between spitefulness and sycophancy, recrimination and masochism. He so worshipped Barbara, he said, that, had they been on a desert island while they were engaged, she would have been safe with him. He couldn't have made plainer what was wrong with the marriage, and, when Barbara says, "I never really liked it", we don't need to ask the antecedent. Frederick's "love" looks more like vanity - as he becomes more and more self-pitying, it becomes plain that he cared more for the idea of himself as a man ennobled by love than he did for a flesh-and-blood woman.

The rest of the play, though, is thin stuff. Thea Sharrock's production treats it with great seriousness and intensity, but it's hard to see how the character of Barbara can be redeemed - she's a mass of precocity and condescension. When Wesson tells her that he has greeted the quaintly dressed peasant who delivered their milk with a startled "Oh!", Barbara scolds him for about five minutes for this terrible faux pas: "Really, you are impossible!" Tiresome in itself, this archness is even drearier coming from Hall's daughter Rebecca, who, when she isn't grinning and shoving her head forward, is smirking and tossing her head to the side. Jason Hughes's steady, slow-burning Wesson is a bit lukewarm, but William Chubb is excellent as the awkward, tortured Frederick, full of emotions he doesn't understand. It's a mildly diverting evening, but if Polonius were categorising The Fight for Barbara, he'd have to call it curious-historical.

To 9 August (01225 448844)