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The Daughter-in-Law
The Young Vic


Stuart Simpson

David Lan, the director of this production, remarks that DH Lawrence is underrated as a playwright, that he is the equal of Chekhov, that The Daughter-in-Law is a masterpiece.

Having never seen or read a Lawrence play, I decided to take him at his word and put a little effort in by reading the play first and mulling it over for a few days to get an idea of what to expect. Unfortunately, Lawrence is so little regarded as a playwright that I was unable to get hold of a copy of the play before the performance. So it was with only the knowledge that the play had something to do with miners and marriage that I sat waiting for the curtains to rise.

This proved to be a rather exhausting oversight on my part. The Daughter-in-Law is full of the kind of characters, ideas, language and environment that we are now used to seeing in caricature, and it is hard work keeping up as these are rendered open and inventive in the hands of Lawrence.

The play is set in a mining village not far from Nottingham at the time of the 1912 strike, around a family comprising Mrs Purdy the mother, her two sons Luther and Joe, and Luther's new wife Minnie, the daughter-in-law of the title. The set, a simple miner's house, appears to be carved out of the coal face. The play begins with the sounds of the pit engines gearing up, the theatre lights flash, giving a different perspective on the house with every revolution of the turbines; the overall impression is that of a world dominated by the pits.

A revealing comment is made by Mrs Purdy later in the performance, when the pits are closed because of the strike. She remarks on how the world seems dead, quiet and that the night seems dark, without the sounds and the light from the machinery of the pits. The pits are the at heart of everything that happens, and there is a simple assumption that the pits belong to those who work them.

But the strike, the pits, the messes, and everything associated with this world are external to the play. The world of the play may be shaped by the pits, but it is separate from them. During a discussion about the strike between Luther and his brother, all attention is focused on Minnie standing silently to one side.

So it wasn't any caricatures of Northern life (by which I mean north of Watford), or a romanticised account of the working class, that I found preying on my mind during the play, but the cutout figures we see in the work of those who imitate Woody Allen. The Daughter-in-Law has more in common with the world of the neurotic New Yorker than with that of Ken Loach: the dominant mother figure and the pathetic men who lay their failings squarely at their mother's feet.

The first scene is technically necessary to the plot and characters, but in comparison to what follows it just isn't any good. I may not have read a Lawrence play, but his novels aren't so far out of fashion to make me ignorant of those too. Lawrence is at his best when he deals with the barely concealed conflict and passion of love, and the opening scene seems a little too tranquil in light of what follows.

Certainly tensions are raised with the introduction of Luther's illegitimate child, but it is only with the knowledge of what is to follow, which I lacked, that the true nature of this scene reveals itself. For the most part it is the portrait of a happy family, too happy as it turns out, since happy families are all alike, and not very interesting.

The entrance of Minnie starts the play for real. Minnie and Luther are seven weeks married, and it appears they are already at each others' throats, or at least Minnie is at Luther's. Unfortunately for the performance, in this scene we are taken in two different directions. From watching far too many films with foppish wimps, it is easy to suspect that Luther is just a mummy's boy to be ridiculed.

It is Minnie's moving performance that takes us in the other direction. From her we get a sense that this is a loving marriage, but because of the overshadowing figure of Luther's mother, one in which she is also utterly alone. Luther's comic quality makes it hard to sustain this sense through to the end of the play - the audience must make a leap of faith based on Minnie's performance, that Luther is more than he appears. It is a credit to the director that these scenes are not played for laughs, as they easily could be.

The final two acts slowly bring the tensions in the relationships between the family members to the surface, as the strike escalates to violent confrontation outside the house. These scenes justify the effort in the first half of the play to keep any preconceptions at arms length.

The Daughter-in-Law is a profoundly moving play, one which Amazon have promised to send me within four to six weeks. In the mean time I plan to see whether Chekhov is as good a playwright as Lawrence.

 


The Young Vic, London, until 12 October

 

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