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A CurtainUp London London Review
Lawrence After Arabia

"You can't appear in the London Times in a dress!." — Lowell Thomas
Lawrence After Arabia
Jack Laskey as TE Lawrence (Photo: Alastair Muir)
For me it all started with David Lean's film Lawrence of Arabia with Peter O'Toole as this wildly romantic but flawed hero whose dream of Arabia was shattered by colonial politicians in Britain and France and the lack of united purpose in the Arabs leaders. Since the 1960s film there has been some research about Lawrence's account of his torture at the hands of the Turks in Daraa and this forms the mystery of Brenton's fascinating play.

Set in the country home of the playwright George Bernard Shaw (Jeff Rawle) and his wife Charlotte (Geraldine James) in August 1922 in the village of Ayot St Lawrence in Hertfordshire, we meet Lawrence visiting his friends to ask for help editing his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Shaw is in the process of writing St Joan and in this play we start to see the parallels between Lawrence of Arabia and St Joan who led France to victory and then whose reward was being handed to the English forces and burnt at the stake.

Lawrence's story is told in flashbacks to the desert and to his encounters with Prince Feisal (Khalid Laith) and with Field Marshall Allenby (William Chubb). Lawrence's predicament in the 1920s is how does he live a normal life away from his celebrity? His answer has been to enlist in the Royal Air Force in the ranks as Aircraftsman Second Class John Ross, but then he writes to the Air Chief Marshall with details of the conditions the men work under.

Field Marshall Allenby (William Chubb) visits the Shaws warning them that a journalist is about to break Lawrence's cover in the RAF. The journalist is Lowell Thomas (Sam Alexander), an American and the man who wrote about Lawrence and made him famous. Allenby tells the Shaws that Lawrence turned down a knighthood and returned his Distinguished Service Medal to the king because Lawrence felt so deeply the betrayal of the Arabian cause. Allenby's class ridden concern is that of the image of a hero, an officer and a gentleman slumming it in the lowest echelons of the air force.

I like the construct of the play with the cut scenes filling in some of the historical detail in this well researched drama. The casting is good too although history has Shaw taller and Lawrence shorter and Charlotte plainer. Jack Laskey's sensitive portrayal of Lawrence also has humour as he relates punishment duties digging out latrines with Shaw's approval of the miseries of working class drudgery.

Lawrence repeatedly loses or burns manuscripts of his book and Shaw's secretary Blanche Patch (Rosalind March) finds some pages torn from Lawrence's diary which would have covered the time in Daraa. There is a question mark about whether Lawrence was there and abused by the Turks or whether this incident was designed to paint the Turks in a worse light to further the Arab cause.

This play is all the more interesting for its details of the area that is in conflict now in Syria. Another detail is that Lawrence lived at the end of his life in a cottage in Clouds Hill in Dorset. There his guests like George Bernard Shaw, EM Forster and Robert Graves slept on the floor in a sleeping bag as did Lawrence himself. Lawrence's bag had the word Meum, Latin for Mine, embroidered on it and the visitor's Tuum or Yours. The Tuum bag was stolen in the 1960s in the aftermath of the Lawrence worship that followed the film but returned in 2001 in a weather beaten parcel to Clouds Hill from Belgium with the note "This is Yours".

Lawrence After Arabia by Howard Brenton
Directed by John Dove
Starring: Jack Laskey, Jeff Rawle, Garaldine James, William Chubb, Khalid Laith, Sam Alexander, Rosalind March
With: Kai Spellman, Christobal Pizarro
Design: Michael Taylor
Lighting: Mark Doubleday
Sound: John Leonard
Composer: Philip Pinsky
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking to 14th June 2016
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 10th May 2016 performance at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue London NW3 (Tube: Swiss Cottage)
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