Adulation and Flagellation - TE Lawrence
“How do you give away countries?”
Jan Woolf worked as the writer in residence at an archaeological dig in Jordan in 2016. She has written this play around a modern day exhibition of the real artefacts found on the dig. An archaeologist Dr Caroline Howard (Suzanne Hamilton) is curating the exhibition. She is of the generation for whom David Lean’s film of Lawrence of Arabia inspired many to investigate TE Lawrence and/or to follow Peter O’Toole who gave an outstanding performance as the man himself, despite being several inches taller and wearing bright blue contact lenses and bleaching his hair. I even read some of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom Lawrence’s book about the Arab Revolt.
Douglas Clarke-Wood plays the ghost of Lawrence visiting the exhibition. Helping Dr Howard unpack and display the artefacts is Muzz (Mascuud Dahir) who is of Iraqi descent. 2016 was the centenary of the Arab Revolt. We hear about the war against the Ottoman Empire and the consequent division of Syria by England and France, the Blue Zone being French and the Red Zone British. The British person who drew the line in the sand couldn’t speak French, let alone Arabic! Does this remind you of the division of India and Pakistan in 1947?
The first part of the play, Blood recalls the warfare, the fighting, the killing, the weaponry used, artefacts of a grenade and a military button. Part Two is about the Gold, the money, the £10,000 reward from the Turks for the capture of Lawrence. We see Lawrence in his army uniform answering questions from the archaeologist about his childhood as one of four illegitimate sons of an Irish baronet and the former governess to his daughters. Lawrence says that in comparison to his life in England he wasn’t judged by Arab society but accepted. Lawrence wants to apologise to the Arabs for the destruction of their, and his, dream of a unified Arab nation.
In the final part Oil, we see Lawrence’s demons in the number of people butchered by the Turks and the traumatic descritption of Lawrence’s treatment when he is captured, beaten and raped. We hear about the success of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and how it has been used as a military manual by the Vietcong, the Taliban and others. Lawrence explains his self flagellation and we get to reflect on how religious flagellation re-manifested itself as sexual sad-masochism and how nowadays it is the incidence of self harm often because of low self esteem.
We hear too how he tries to escape his fame by joining the RAF as Aircraftsman Ross and later joins an army unit as Private Shaw. Howard Brenton’s play Lawrence After Arabia explored his inability to remain silent when faced with the indignities of life as an AC Plonk and on disciplinary measures.
The dramatisation of Lawrence’s story is limited to the context of the exhibition set which means that the play is dominated by words rather than anything more visual. It maybe could do with development but of course the actor numbers are necessarily limited by budget. Lawrence is the only person who knew what happened in this play so any debate tends to be about him being listened to.
It is interesting how often Lawrence’s own manuscripts were lost or destroyed by him and how in 2022, a missing chapter of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom has been found. I learnt about Seven Pillars as a military manual but I am unaware that anything new has been said in Jan Woolf’s 70 minute play. However I am sure many of those captivated by the legend of Lawrence of Arabia may want to see it.
Blood, Gold and Oil
Written by Jan Woolf
Directed by Isaac Bernier-Doyle
Director: Isaac Bernier-Doyle
Light and Sound Design: Simon Jackson
Costume Design: Holly Louise Chapman
Running Time: 70 minutes without an interval
Booking to 30th April 2023
Upstairs at the Gatehouse
London N6 4BD
Box Office: 020 8340 3488
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at Upstairs at the Gatehouse
on 25th April 2023