Review: Lawrence After Arabia Reveals The Man Behind The Legend

Lawrence After Arabia, Hampstead Theatre ★★★☆☆

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 24 months ago
Review: Lawrence After Arabia Reveals The Man Behind The Legend Lawrence After Arabia, Hampstead Theatre 3
Jack Laskey in Lawrence After Arabia. Photo: Alastair Muir.

Howard Brenton’s latest historical biographical drama focuses on the fascinatingly ambivalent figure of T.E. Lawrence, better known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. As its title suggests, the play takes place after his legendary leading role as a desert warrior in the successful Arab Revolt against the Turks, which started 100 years ago.

We see a very different Lawrence from the heroic public image, as he takes refuge with his friends George Bernard Shaw and his wife Charlotte in the quiet village of Ayot St Lawrence in Hertfordshire in 1922. Desperate to escape the pressures of worldwide fame, he has enlisted as an RAF squaddie under the name of 'Ross', but his longing for anonymity is also due to the guilt he feels for his part in betraying the unfulfilled promises of freedom for the Arab peoples.

In Lawrence After Arabia, Brenton once again takes a highly critical look at British establishment politics. His last play at Hampstead Theatre, Drawing the Line, condemned the way Britain carried out the Partition after Indian independence that led to religious massacres and longstanding divisions. Here, he shows how Britain used the Arabs to fight against the Ottoman Empire during the first world war, but afterwards with France carved up the Middle East for their own imperial purposes. And, further, he suggests that the 'mandates' they established in Syria, Iraq and Palestine not only led to perpetual conflict in that region but also rebounded on us in the form of Islamist terrorism.

The implications of Brenton’s analysis of this hugely important and controversial subject are clear, but overall the play itself does not come across as too much of a history lesson, as the events are seen through Lawrence's personal perspective. Though there are a few 'flashbacks' to the war, this is very much about a mixed-up Lawrence haunted by the past and trying to create a new identity for himself away from the limelight. This is an intimate portrait of a self-conflicted man rather than an epic adventure story, even if the mystery at the heart of Lawrence is not fully pierced.

John Dove's solid direction is a bit static, and the play does lack a bit of dramatic momentum. In Michael Taylor’s ingenious design of a comfortable, book-lined sitting room (backed by life-sized photographs of the real house), the furniture and wall slide off stage as the interior opens out to an uncluttered desert setting.

Jack Laskey gives a well-rounded performance as Lawrence, revealing the self-loathing, even masochistic, guilt beneath his debonair charm, whose past exploits cast a long shadow rather than a glorious afterglow. Jeff Rawle makes a wittily egotistical Shaw (though the analogy between his current play Saint Joan and Lawrence as a 'martyr' doesn't work), Geraldine James conveys Charlotte's emotional attachment to Lawrence as she edits his Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Rosalind March plays Shaw's shrewdly observant secretary Blanche Patch.  

Sam Alexander gives an aggressive possessiveness to Lowell Thomas, the American journalist whose reports and photographs helped construct the Lawrence legend. William Chubb lends a drily humorous authority to Field Marshall Edmund Allenby. And Khalid Laith is the guerrilla fighter Prince Feisal, whose scepticism about his 'brother' Lawrence's ultimate allegiance proves well founded.   

Lawrence After Arabia is on at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, NW3 3EU until 4 June. Tickets are £25–£35. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 12 May 2016