Lawrence After Arabia, Hampstead Theatre – Reviewed


lawrence_of_arabia-1Lawrence of Arabia

Thomas Edward Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia—the much chronicled but little understood hero of the first world war, has been something of a historical enigma since his death in 1935. This play by Howard Brenton attempts to cast light not only on his character and personal relationships, but also his disillusionment with the British military establishment, and his unease with the fame thrust upon him after the war.

Lawrence After Arabia

Commissioned to mark the centenary of the start of the Arab Revolt, The play focusses on Lawrence a few years after the war, and is told through conversations between he and his close friends: the writer George Bernard Shaw and his wife, Charlotte.  These conversations are interspersed with flashbacks to his time in the desert, to provide context to  what’s being discussed.

Prior knowledge of Lawrence’s escapades is not necessary, as Lawrence After Arabia stands alone as a narrative piece, but appreciation of his social position and the political climate would perhaps be better understood if the viewer is at least familiar with his accomplishments in Arabia.

Lawrence frequently visits the Shaw’s house, as Charlotte helps to edit his biographical Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  As she progresses through his notes and diaries, inconsistencies in Lawrence’s accounts begin to appear. Notions of anti-establishment, sexuality, and the imperial gaze that Lawrence comes to realise and abhor, are discussed as we delve deeper into his psyche.

Despite these conversations being pure conjecture, the events they describe are based on a collection of historical accounts and theories regarding Lawrence’s sexuality, his alleged penchant for self degradation, and his desire to escape the limelight. Furthermore, the inaccuracies that Charlotte Shaw discovers in Seven Pillars of Wisdom are genuine, and the subject of ongoing debate.

The issue of sexuality is constantly present, like an elephant in the room, until it is eventually directly confronted by Charlotte Shaw. The play alludes constantly to Lawrence’s alleged rape at the hands of the Turks, when he was their prisoner in 1917. Historically, Lawrence’s sexuality has been a subject of debate (though many contemporary sources claim he was actually asexual). The story of the rape itself is also thought to be a fabrication by Lawrence, in an attempt to publicly flagellate himself for what he saw as his betrayal of the arabs.

The Cast

Lawrence is portrayed by Jack Laskey to have an almost childish zeal, at times possibly over-acted but in no way unconvincing. Jeff Rawle, as G.B Shaw, provides the occasional comic relief and Geraldine James carries her role as Lawrence’s confident superbly. Khalid Laith brings poise and bearing to his Prince Feisal, whilst the American reporter Lowell Thomes—the man responsible for Lawrence’s fame and villain of the piece, such as their is one— is played convincingly by Sam Alexander.

The Verdict

Clearly well researched and offering a fascinating insight into this enigmatic historical figure, Lawrence After Arabia is an understated masterpiece. Superb performances and an emotionally undulating script make this an engaging piece of drama, that is as challenging as it is educational. Whilst it only recounts a minute period of his life, it offers anew perspective on Lawrence’s complex persona and addresses colonial attitudes to imperialism and sexuality, that are not entirely irrelevant to today’s audience.