|Ellie Piercy in The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd (Credit: Mark Douet)|
A 7.30 start-time, numbered seating, a fresh paint job in the auditorium, new wines on offer at the bar: yep, the superficial signs of a new era at the Orange Tree are there to see pretty much as soon as you enter the theatre. And yet, taking over following Sam Walters’s amazing forty-five year artistic directorship of the venue, Paul Miller has opted to open his first season with a show that deliberately suggests continuity with Walters’s reign rather than a clear break with it.
By coincidence, in fact, Walters’s production of D. H. Lawrence’s 1912 play The Daughter-in-Law was the very first thing that I saw at the OT back in 2001, while Miller himself directed a well-regarded production of the play at the Crucible in Sheffield just last year. Now, the director turns his attention to Lawrence’s 1914 work, The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd. And, boasting wonderful attention to detail and an outstanding cast, it’s hard to imagine seeing this play served better than it is in the special, in-the-round intimacy of the Orange Tree.
Mining-focused dramas seem to be quite the rage at present, with the likes of Beth Steel's Wonderland, Chris Urch's just-transferred Land of Our Fathers and Matthew Warchus’s much-hyped (and, in my opinion, execrable-looking) film Pride providing an interesting cultural context for another look at Lawrence’s theatre. And yet, as crucial as the pit backdrop is to The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd (particularly in the play’s wrenching second half), the piece is, essentially, a thoroughly domestic drama focusing upon “a devilish married life.” (The phrase is one used by Lawrence in a 1910 letter describing his parents’ own unblissful union.)
|Gyuri Sarossy in The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd (Credit: Mark Douet)|
Lizzie Holroyd is a harried 32-year-old mother of two suffering at the hands of a volatile spouse, Charles, who returns home in his cups most nights, on one occasion bringing “two trollops from Nottingham” (splendidly rendered by Heather Johnson and Maggie O’Brien here) with him. This incident seems to prove the last straw for Lizzie. But the protagonist’s resolve to leave her husband and get out of “this hole [where] every gossiping creature thinks she’s got the right to cackle about you” presents her with more of a moral conundrum than you might imagine.
Though the play is not without humour, Lawrence doesn’t balk at pulling the viewer directly into a brutally unhappy marital situation. And what I admire in Miller’s production is its determined, honest refusal to sweeten the pill. Aided by John Harris’s atmospheric lighting and Terry Davies’s mournful horn score, the production conveys the complexities of a dysfunctional relationship forged through convenience and filled with disgust and contempt, but also dependency and a kind of love. The confrontations are raw and intense, and Lawrence’s language rough and gnarled, though not without its beautiful, lyrical and rhythmic qualities.
|Ellie Piercy and Jordan Mifsud in The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd (Credit: Mark Douet)|
The cast deliver that language superbly. Ellie Piercy’s captivating Lizzie is a mass of contradictions and Piercy brilliantly keeps us alert to every shade of uncertainty and resolve, guilt and grief, humiliation and hope, that the character experiences. She’s supported by beautiful work from Jordan Mifsud as the concerned young miner who offers Lizzie an escape route, and by a stunning performance from Polly Hemingway (a dead ringer for Rachel Roberts here) as the mother-in-law who’s seen most of her menfolk perish in pit accidents and who sides with her son over his spouse (“He should never have married a clever woman”) even while acknowledging his flaws. And while, as Charles, the relatively lean Gyuri Sarossy isn’t the outsize masculine figure evoked by the other characters’ descriptions, the actor’s gruff, thickly-accented delivery helps to make a bold, powerfully physical impression.
The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd isn’t perfect in its construction: not all of the characters are fully drawn, and the ending is abrupt (the play seems to be missing a final scene). And the drama certainly doesn’t develop in a way to please the sensibilities of a modern audience. But, even so, this sensitive and beautifully judged production makes for a terrific start to Miller’s tenure at the Orange Tree.
Running time: 2 hours, with interval.
The production is booking until 4th October. Further information at the Orange Tree website.