Pros: A beautifully crafted piece of theatre with an excellent performance by Paul Slack, which engenders huge sympathy for DH Lawrence.
Cons: The frustrations of the space, specifically the seating layout and outside noise, meant that I was slightly distracted from an otherwise excellent play.
DH Lawrence is one of those authors that most people have either read or feel that they should have done. He’s back in our collective consciousness again at the moment due to a recent BBC dramatisation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but he’s never far from it. This is at least in part due to the huge historical significance of the aforementioned novel, which sparked controversy and challenged the accepted publishing practices when it originally came out. I hope Phoenix Rising benefits from this current awareness, because this beautiful, gentle play deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, regardless of whether or not they care one iota about DH Lawrence.
Written and directed by Campbell Kay, this play was originally performed at the Nottingham Playhouse in 2010. Five years later, Paul Slack returns to the role of DH Lawrence. His solo performance is, at times, very funny: childhood anecdotes and episodes of physical comedy punctuate what could otherwise be a very serious play, as we explore Lawrence’s early life, up to the time of his mother’s death. Slack, slipping in an out of numerous characters but always returning with the utmost confidence to the main man, is to gripping watch. He does a stellar job in retaining the audience for the length of the play, despite any distractions or discomforts the theatre itself holds. It is frustrating that in such a small space as the Tristan Bates Theatre, the seating lacks any off-setting; it meant that I missed some of the action as I ducked and weaved around the head of the person in front of me. It somewhat spoilt an otherwise excellent couple of hours in the theatre.
In many ways, there’s a beautiful symmetry to Phoenix Rising, most notably the striking similarity between the life of the actor and the character he plays. Paul Slack grew up in Nottinghamshire and trained as a bricklayer before becoming an actor; through the course of the play we see how close DH Lawrence was to following his father down to the coal mines, but was saved by his own intellectual curiosities and the efforts of his mother. Both actor and character have forged careers within the creative industry, and we are reaping the rewards. Slack has a magnificent physical awareness – his very presence shifts as aptly as his accent as he moves from one character to another. His physical comedy timing is spot on, but equally impeccable are the moments of quiet tenderness, especially those involving the complex relationships with his parents, which are suitably subtle and touching. Watching his previously powerful mother and angry father reduced to the infirmity of old age is especially moving.
Given some of the things he did, the way he behaved and his general demeanour, it would be more than possible to have a great dislike of DH Lawrence. At the hands of Kay and Slack however, he becomes hugely likeable and I came away with great sympathy for him, a real testament to the excellence of both the play and its delivery.
Author and Director: Campbell Kay
Box Office: 020 7240 6283
Booking Link: http://tristanbatestheatre.co.uk/whats-on/phoenix-rising
Booking Until: 17 October 2015