Lawrence After Arabia, Hampstead Theatre, review: ‘Sluggish and unsurprising’

Jack Laskey as T.E. Lawrence. Picture: Alastair Muir

Jack Laskey as T.E. Lawrence. Picture: Alastair Muir - Credit: Alastair Muir

What happened to WWI hero TE Lawrence after his desert exploits made him famous?

The former intelligence officer signed up to the lower ranks of the RAF under a false name and hid out in George Bernard Shaw’s country pile.

Through flashbacks to his crucial wartime partnership with Syrian Prince Feisal in the arab rebellion, Howard Brenton reveals the broken promises that fed this later self-loathing. Taking the same theme as his play about Indian partition, Drawing the Line, Brenton suggests we are reaping the whirwind today for the imperialist carve up of Arabia, a vast expanse filled with nomadic tribes with no formal borders.

Lawrence’s tormented masochism is offset against the Irish playwright’s amusingly blocked attempts to write his masterpiece St Joan; with a strong suggestion one may have inspired the other.

And visits by Lowell Thomas the American journalist responsible for publicising this exotic war hero, alongside Shaw’s crisply protective wife Charlotte’s bid to edit Lawrence’s memoir The Seven Pillars of Wisdom raise intriguing questions of how truth is sacrificed to mythmaking and celebrity.

But despite its promising themes and some fine performances Jonathan Dove’s competent but underwhelming production never catches fire.

But while he can always turn a fine phrase Brenton is not on top form, forcing characters into too much explanatory dialogue while failing reveal much new about the enigmatic Lawrence.

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Geraldine James is compelling when revealing Charlotte’s underlying passions, Jack Laskey does good work in suggesting Lawrence’s anguished state and Rosalind March makes a tartly perpicacious secretary in Blanche Patch.

But really this is a sluggish and unsuprising evening.

Lawrence After Arabia is at Hampstead Theatre.

Rating: 2/5 stars.