I have marvelled at David Lean’s film masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia several times without ever fully understanding it. The politics, the historical context and even the geography have all baffled me, but it says something about modern awareness of the troubles in the Middle East that this new play makes everything clearer. Indeed, current difficulties may have given Howard Brenton the incentive to write a play in which the closest we get to a dramatic highlight comes with TE Lawrence wagging a finger towards Britain and France for drawing an arbitrary line on the map to create the countries of Iraq and Syria. If Lawrence had really launched into such a tirade, how sad that the Governments of the day did not heed his warnings! The play is set at a time when Lawrence has enlisted in the lowest rank of the RAF under the pseudonym “Ross”. He arrives at the Hertfordshire home of his friend George Bernard Shaw, seeking help in editing his memoirs The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Shaw is preoccupied with completing Saint Joan and his wife Charlotte takes on the task. Director John Dove’s production is classy from beginning to end, as emphasised by Michael Taylor’s imposing set of Shaw’s study which opens out to become a barren stage for short flashback scenes in the desert. There is class acting too, with Geraldine James as solid as ever as Charlotte, Jeff Rawle as a mischievous Shaw, revelling in his own eccentricity and Rosalind March as Shaw’s frumpy secretary who understands more than perhaps she should. Jack Laskey’s Lawrence seems a little too immature, but that could be due to the difficulty of clearing Peter O’Toole’s performance from the mind. Laskey’s boyish version may well be closer to the real thing, but it puts strains on the credibility of a scene in which Charlotte declares her love for him, even while acknowledging that he is a homosexual and a masochist. Brenton devotes much of the second act to investigating the incident at Deraa in which, allegedly, Lawrence was brutally raped and beaten by the Turks, supporting the recent theory that it was all fabricated. However, he delves little deeper than the Lean film into to mind of a man who remains one of the great enigmas of the 20th Century. This absence of new insight and a shortage of high drama to ignite scenes, make the play slightly disappointing, although it is always absorbing. Maybe Terrence Rattigan’s Ross, shortly to be revived in Chichester, will fuel further interest in this fascinating man.
Performance date: 11 May 2016