For his inaugural production as the second artistic director of the Orange Tree, Paul Miller has fully embraced London’s only permanently in-the-round theatre’s suitability in representing a domestic space, one that in this play is a prison rather than a sanctuary. D.H. Lawrence’s unrelenting bleak play The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd was published in the year that World War I broke out, which was also the year that George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion premiered, a play as witty and learned as can be. Lawrence never saw any of his plays performed professionally during his lifetime and as an example of the way in which all naturalistic writers were inspired by Ibsen, this is a slow-burning affair that yields insufficient dramatic pay off to be a truly exciting Orange Tree rediscovery.
For a modern audience, it is something of a challenge to appreciate how radical this play must have been at the time it was written because so much of what it presents about the working- class experience has become overly familiar, even clichéd, in the ensuing century. It’s a foregone conclusion that the unlucky heroine and the man she loves are not going to elope to a new life of oranges and sunshine in Spain, the dust of the Nottinghamshire colliery being too deeply oppressive to escape from.
Lawrence seems to set the action some years before 1914 (the centenary coverage has shown that members of all walks of life could talk of nothing else in the months leading up, and the presence of a newspaper shows that these aren’t people completely cut off from the outside world) where there is no sign of anything changing. A life of austerity is ideally evoked by a single lamp and a stone floor perfect for a head to crack open on (except that would be too melodramatic).
Lizzie Holroyd is a prematurely haggard 32-year-old wife and mother, a grammar school-educated former nursery governess who married an uncouth miner for his handsomeness and his muscles, and the possibility that this was going to be her only offer. Ellie Piercy plays this poor unhappy creature with steely composure and a fixed mask. The tragedy is that getting her wish leads to another cycle of guilt, regret and fear rather than liberation. Gyori Sarossy’s Holroyd is a thoroughly bad lot devoid of any redeeming features, who, in the play’s liveliest scene, brings a pair of loud-mouthed paper-bonneted floozies (Heather Johnson and Maggie O’Brien) into the home to humiliate his wife and corrupt the children. Completing the triangle, Jordan Mifsud is a tenderpresence as Lizzie’s hope for escape, performing simple acts of kindness that her husband would be incapable of thinking of.
What is most affecting is the way in which death is such a routine occurrence. For Lizzie’s sour mother-in-law (Polly Hemingway), the premature death of a son down the pit is no great shock and she chastises her daughter-in-law for not having a smart set of clothes for the corpse prepared for such an event.
This is a play that, censorship laws not withstanding, was never going to be a commercial success in the West End in 1914, and probably wouldn’t be so in 2014 either. Having taken over the artistic directorship on the day that the Arts Council cut the Orange Tree’s funding, Miller’s understated, finely acted debut indicates a continuation of Sam Walters’s legacy rather than changing things for the sake of being different. Nevertheless, I hope that there are more surprising rediscoveries to come and perhaps the two upcoming new plays will be interesting in gauging a clearer view of Miller’s own vision for this much-loved theatre’s future.