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On the Rocks
The play is set in 1916, when DH Lawrence insists that Katherine Mansfield and Murry join him and his German divorcée wife, Frieda in the idyllic Cornish village of Zennor. On the edges of the influential Bloomsbury group, they are four exiles: from their mother country in the case of Frieda and Katherine, but also from the majority of society because of their pacifist objections to World War One. Lawrence’s dreams of instituting Ranamin, an idyllic community of like-minded artists, soon start to fragment and disintegrate, threatening their friendship.
With some excellent acting, the casting choices obviously had a clear eye on historical faces. Ed Stoppard’s unshaven DH Lawrence is absolutely vile at times, violent and lacking self-awareness while also incredibly overbearing and controlling. Frieda (Tracy-Ann Oberman) is pragmatic, sensuous and quite greedy, whether for food or Lawrence himself. Their relationship veers from passionate love to violent argument within seconds.
The other couple act as an interesting antidote to the fiery pair. Charlotte Emmerson’s Katherine Mansfield is prim with sharp, observant wit and just a trace of a New Zealand accent while Nick Caldecott’s geeky and diffident Jack is a fascinating hybrid between schoolboy and old man. In spite of some fervent, earth-shattering exchanges, these characters never change and at the very end of the play, Lawrence returns to the idea of his precious Ranamin.
Paul Burgess’ compartmentalised set conveys a sense of the parochialism of this quasi-idyll and the immediate proximity between the two couples’ closely-parallel lives in Zennor. Nevertheless, it’s quaintness with bright blue sky and pretty garden does not fully represent the harsh wildness and dominating rock-faces which Katherine learns to hate.
Amy Rosenthal’s writing is engaging and obviously rather erudite. Cleverly interspersing interludes from letters and journals, she visibly enjoys an in- depth familiarity with these characters’ lives and the records they left behind. However, there is an overall tension between the biographical and the creative impetus. At times, the play felt like a treatise-exploration on friendship and love and at others, it was more a straightforward historical, drama-documentary on these famous lives. These two elements were never really resolved and there was little unity between the two. Perhaps too faithful to the historical truth, there was not really enough thematic coherence or resolution.
On the Rocks may not be an entirely innovative or exciting piece of theatre, but it is interesting, funny and has a certain charm. The cast are wonderful, with some hilarious and poignant moments whilst the writing has great pace and is just a little in need of some extra thematic shaping. This is an enjoyable, if rather safe play and would undoubtedly be fascinating to those with a particular interest in DH Lawrence or Katherine Mansfield.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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