Over 50 years since it helped invent sexual intercourse (according to Philip Larkin anyway), DH Lawrence’s most famous work still holds the power to fascinate. When Jed Mercurio adapted the novel for the BBC last year, there were complaints that the sex, nudity and language had been toned down – that’s certainly not an accusation you can level at Philip Breen’s stage version, where the leading couple stay completely naked for a good chunk of the second half.
Yet there’s more to Lady Chatterley’s Lover than sex – which seems odd, considering how inextricably linked the subject is to the source material. Breen has produced a reasonably faithful version of Lawrence’s text, throwing in references to class tensions and attitudes to conventional masculinity. The language that was one of the triggers for the infamous court case is also present and correct, with a liberal scattering of ‘fucks’ and ‘cunts’. In this company, Mellors referring to his penis as his John Thomas seems almost quaint.
It’s certainly not a play to come to for cheap thrills however – Breen’s production is slow, stately and almost as tentative as the leading couple’s slow journey towards each other. Laura Hopkins’ set design is achingly stylish, with Hedydd Dylan’s titular Lady entering the stage to pull off dust sheets revealing various items such as her husband’s wheelchair and a piano. The air of sad yearning and latent unhappiness that permeates the production is present from the start as we see Constance helping her husband from his wheelchair to bathe him.
Those unfamiliar with the source material won’t be in any danger of becoming confused – all the relevant points are dealt with, from Sir Clifford’s war wound and resultant impotence, his desperation for an heir, Constance’s affair with a rather highly strung Irish playwright before Oliver Mellors enters the stage. Jonah Russell bears an uncanny resemblance to Mad Men’s Jon Hamm and he has the same skill in portraying emotionally distant men – there’s certainly a chemistry between himself and Dylan, although the initial sex scenes seem somewhat mechanical and strangely unerotic.
That could be due to the rather stilted pace or a desire to replicate the more restrained times of that particular era, but it does mean that the play is a bit of a slog sometimes, especially when your first half clocks in at a marathon 90 minutes. It’s livened up though by an interlude which manages to be both simultaneously comic and tragic, in which Sir Clifford’s electric scooter fails to work properly, and he has to rely on the younger man to get him moving again – no doubt one of the few times where an electric scooter has been used as a metaphor for male virility.
The pace picks up in the second half, especially when Constance and Mellors drop their guard (and clothes) to festoon each other with flowers and lay bare their feelings towards each other, before the inevitable emotional turmoil bubbles up. Breen certainly has a knack for eye-catching imagery – the last image we see of a distraught Sir Clifford, crying as he gropes his nurse is a haunting one – but the distinct lack of energy does hamper the production somewhat. There are a few too many moments where you’re hoping for an injection of theatrical Viagra to liven things up.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover is on at The Crucible in Sheffield until 15th October 2016. Click here for more details.