Geraldine James stars in play about friendship between Lawrence of Arabia and George Bernard Shaw

Geraldine James as Charlotte Shaw

Geraldine James as Charlotte Shaw - Credit: Archant

In August 1922, TE Lawrence, the most famous man in England, went missing.

The archaeologist and war hero was in fact hiding out on the top floor of George Bernard Shaw’s Hertfordshire home.

A new play by Howard Brenton explores this pivotal moment in the life of the man forever known as Lawrence of Arabia – and some of the controversies surrounding his life.

According to actress Geraldine James who plays Shaw’s adoring wife Charlotte in Lawrence After Arabia, the play is about celebrity and the pressure of living under an idealised persona when you crave normality. But while Lawrence is weary of his worldwide fame, the public won’t allow him to be anything but the romantic desert warrior of their imagination.

Brenton, whose 55 Days and Drawing The Line were both hits at Hampstead Theatre, describes it as “a hero’s tragic-comedy” as the self-loathing Lawrence tries to “shed his skin like a snake” but realises he can’t.

“Caught in a huge reputation, he goes to pieces,” he adds: “It’s about celebrity it’s poison and advantages.”

Set against the idyllic calm of the village of Ayot St Lawrence, Brenton’s play, which marks the centenary of the the Arab Revolt, summons an array of ghosts who haunt him with his own broken promises.The American journalist Lowell Thomas, whose war footage of Lawrence in Bedouin dress and subsequent film made both the British officer and himself famous, inevitably urges him to embrace his celebrity status.

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Lawrence’s wartime commander Field Marshal Edmund Allenby, and Prince Faisal King of Syria and later Iraq, who led the rebellion against the Ottoman Empire in which Lawrence took part, also remind us of the legacy of these broken promises in the Middle East.

“He is cut in half, ambiguous, both hero and betrayer he saw the danger in carving up the Middle East after WWI, he tried to stop it but was part of the carving up himself. He carries glamour and guilt which the British still feel in some ways,” says Brenton.

Also making an appearance is Bernard Shaw’s secretary Blanche Patch, who later wrote a book about her 30 years with the playwright, and the myriad celebrities they welcomed into their home including Gandhi and Charlie Chaplin.

The Shaws would go on to help Lawrence write his 1922 memoir The Seven Pillars of Wisdom on which David Lean’s epic film was based. According to James, the play also raises some of the dynamics of their marriage.

“She adored him but he wasn’t necessarily easy, he was a huge charmer, who could hold the room but there were close relationships with other women including Nancy Astor and a passionate infatuation with Mrs Patrick Campbell.” But James, who says she “loves” turning down parts that don’t challenge her enough, promises Brenton’s writing is “brilliant” and offers a rare example of fully rounded characters, including a journey for Charlotte that “I’m not going to tell you about you’ll have to come and see.”

Lawrence After Arabia runs at Hampstead Theatre until June 4.