Between 1911 and 1913 DH Lawrence wrote three plays that would be known as the Eastwood trilogy: A Collier’s Friday Night, The Daughter-in-Law and The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd. In 2015 the three plays were combined and conflated in Ben Power’s Husbands and Sons. Although Emile Zola had previously written about coalminers in Germinal (1885) and Vincent Van Gogh moved to the Borinage in Belgium to live among the miners he painted, Lawrence was the first writer, indeed artist, to portray them from the inside.
When Lawrence grew up in Eastwood there were 10 local pits. His father would make the daily mile trek to Brinsley Colliery to help produce 500 tons of coal a day before stopping off for a skinful in the local. When he eventually returned home there would be blazing rows, with the children caught in the middle. Lawrence despised the dehumanising effects of industrialisation and the destruction of the natural landscape - all captured vividly in his early novels and plays. We may not always like the raw characters, but we understand their motivations. They are products of their environment.
Lawrence has taken some stick over the years for his views on women. Some of this has been worthy, some a bit unfair, and some down to simplistic interpretations of his work. Hopefully David Dunford’s direction of The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd goes some way to readdressing this balance. Set entirely in the domestic sphere, it highlights the awful predicament faced by women – mothers and wives – in coping with life in a rough mining community.
Mr Holroyd (Phillip Burn) is a loutish miner who spends as much time down the pub as he does down the pit. When he drunkenly stumbles home he brings misery to the tranquillity of the household, either through clattering home with floozies or mouthing off when he doesn’t get his own way. In this production he was cast as a bit of a buffoon, unable to take his shoes off when drunk, and just a bit hopeless. He threatens violence and gets in scrapes, but I didn’t find him intimidating.
Mrs. Holroyd (Clare Choubey) is excellent as the domestic goddess; patiently folding the ironing, looking after the children, and dreading the inevitable calamity about to unfold when her husband comes clattering through the door. But she’s not someone to feel sorry for. She can stand up for herself and gives as good as she takes. She has an interested suitor in Blackmore (Malcolm Todd), a sensitive individual who begs her to leave her no good hubby and elope to Spain with him. Being married to the wrong partner/or in the wrong relationship is a recurring theme in Lawrence’s work.
The two Holroyd children, Minnie (Georgia Feghali) and Jack (Henry Vervoorts), have a good dynamic on stage, bickering and playing. They would be more than happy to leave the misery of their home and set off on a new adventure with Blackmore. Discussions and plans are made, but escape seems unlikely. This is when the simplicity of the set design has its most powerful effect – all the characters are trapped in the front room, with the constant silhouette of the pit headstock looming over them in the distance.
Lawrence could waffle on a bit in his novels. His plays are a reminder of his sharp eye for dialogue, pitching different family members against one another. My favourite character was the Grandmother (Hazel Salisbury) whose entrance later on in the play exudes snobbery and condescension, as she fingers her daughter-in-law’s shelves for dust. She’s pragmatic, tough as nails, and stoic in how she deals with tragedy. The mother of three boys, she warns: ‘I used to thank God for my children, but they’re rods o’ trouble.’ It is only when the men are asleep or dead that the women can find any peace, or connection with each other.
Although the ending of this play is very well known and the title gives it away, I won’t go into detail. Let’s just say be careful what you wish for.
The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd is at Lace Market Theatre from Monday 13 to Saturday 18 November 2017.
Voted the nation's favourite play in a 2013 poll, Alan Bennett's 2004 stage classic set in a Sheffield grammar school in the 1980s remains both funny and thought-provoking.