Lawrence After Arabia review at Hampstead Theatre, London – ‘lacking in dramatic momentum’

Jack Laskey in Lawrence After Arabia at Hampstead Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton Jack Laskey in Lawrence After Arabia at Hampstead Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Soldier, writer, freedom fighter, spy, TE Lawrence was a fascinating man, complex and contradictory, an icon in his own lifetime, yet also elusive and something of an oddity. Howard Brenton’s attempt to explore the relationship between man and myth is rich with potential – Brenton’s an expert at this kind of thing – but the play never pulls all its threads together. It’s all tell and very little show. It feels, at times, like a collection of (very thorough) research notes.

Lawrence After Arabia is set in 1923 and mostly takes place in the Hertfordshire home of the Bernard Shaws. A haunted Lawrence, unsettled by his fame and desperate for anonymity, has just joined the RAF under an assumed name; at the same time, he’s obsessed with the telling of his story, editing and rewriting The Seven Pillars of Wisdom with the help of Shaw’s wife Charlotte.

There are a few desert flashbacks but these only serve to slow things down. The play is very exposition-heavy too, the characters forever telling each other things one would expect them to already know and slinging facts at one another.

The more intriguing aspects of the writing, about the legacy of Sykes-Picot and Lawrence’s need to punish himself, are undercut by John Dove’s plodder of a production. The pacing seems a little off throughout. There’s a lot of dead air, a lot of ever so slightly over-long pauses – the whole thing echoes with the creak of brogues on floorboards and the tinkle of teacups.

Jack Laskey turns in a crisp, sensitive performance as Lawrence, a man in spiritual turmoil, and Geraldine James and Jeff Rawle also do good work as the Shaws but the play never really takes flight.

Despite its fascinating subject, Howard Brenton’s new play is lacking in dramatic momentum