The hills of the East Midlands are the rolling, green birthplace of pork pies, bakewells, pottery, cut through with seams of black shining coal. Bunny Christie’s design (together with light from Lucy Carter and sound from Ian Dickinson) has the bowl of the Royal Exchange’s main theatre transform into a lift shaft, plunging us downwards to begin the action of the play. The surface gives way, miners cross the stage, coated in the evidence that when you invade the bowels of the earth, it sticks to you, and the play’s women enter their homes, marked out on the floor as in an architect’s drawings, stamped with their surnames, and packed claustrophobically close.
Ben Power has performed a seamless act of Frankensteinery on DH Lawrence’s three plays, The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd, A Collier’s Friday Night and The Daughter-in-Law. The gaps between the source scripts do not show, populated as they are by the scuttling, shuffling inhabitants of Lawrence’s Eastwood.
The play belongs to its women as much as their world belongs to their men. Anne-Marie Duff, Julia Ford and Louise Brealey are wives, penned in and domestic by the surnames on their floors, into their homes with invisible walls. At times the illusion holds, each home a secret box of air and bodies, and at times it has all fallen, the women of the different households staring across what has only ever been empty space.
The men are horrors, portrayed in the production’s visuals as dark spectres, who drift occasionally in and across the space, paying no heed to the invisible walls of the homes kept by the women. Curiously, they are simultaneously hugely masculine, hard things and, to a man, emasculated. From Lydia Lambert’s (Julia Ford) emotionally burgeoning scholar of a son (Johnny Gibbon), to Minnie Gascoigne’s (Brealey) bewildered and chastised husband (Joe Armstrong), the menfolk cannot fulfil their function. Again and again, the women of the play occupy their empty houses silently, or look on at their men, as if marvelling at how these clumsy, hardened things took over their lives.
The question of who is accountable for misery in this community hovers at the edge of every fraught interaction, never quite coming into the open. Fault cycles from character to character – Lizzie Holroyd’s (Duff) sinning heart; her husband’s aggressive outbursts; a universal reliance upon drink between the menfolk; the Gascoigne boys’ overbearing mother – and like the wheel at the pit, it stops only at death. The death of Holroyd’s boorish husband brings not a full stop, but an annihilating white space. He was sealed in by a fall, not touched by the collapse, but suffocated.
The women in this play are a struggle, a patience wearing ever thin yet somehow holding for a generation. This play is a gallery exhibition of femininity, striving in the face of that hugely broken thing – masculinity – to which even today we seem to have no cure. The men fall into the earth, but they fall through their women. These masculine ghosts hold their power in such a way – truly specters in being here and not here – in our presents and in our past.
Charles Holroyd has been swallowed by the earth, but not taken – is spat back out and carried home by his workmates, to be planted on the kitchen table, and cleaned of the soot that coats his corpse. Echoing the drunken evenings of his life, he is limp and spoken over, as the women tidy up around him. Coal is the ground this community stands on, and the death that fills their lungs. It becomes a stain across history – contentious and blood-soaked across centuries, and suddenly, shockingly absenting over the past 40 years. 100 years, 150 years ago, these lives were common enough. Whether masculinity, community, marriage, this production aches with the inevitable creep of something, call it death, call it progress, which alters our lives.
Husbands & Sons is on at the Royal Exchange in Manchester until 19th March 2016. Click here for tickets.