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On The Rocks

Published 2 July 2008

If you’ve ever dreamed of moving to a cottage by the sea, living off the land in the company of your closest friends, eating, drinking and sharing ideas together, Hampstead’s On The Rocks could be an eye opening experience. Charlotte Marshall was in the first night audience.

Based on true events, Amy Rosenthal’s new comedy tells the story of the summer D H Lawrence (Ed Stoppard) and his wife Frieda (Tracy-Ann Oberman) persuaded writers Katherine Mansfield (Charlotte Emmerson) and John Middleton Murry (Nick Caldecott) to live with them in a co-habitation experiment in an attempt to make Lawrence’s idea of rananim – a utopian community of friends living and existing together with a bond that can never be broken – a reality.

What begins as an idyllic existence filled with laughter, inspirational conversation and wine, soon turns darker as Frieda and Lawrence’s tempestuous, fiery relationship and Mansfield’s torturous writer’s block pushes the couples further apart until they can bear it no longer.

The four central characters can only be described as polar opposites, meaning it is not hard for the audience to predict the outcome of the experiment from the very beginning. Lawrence, the indisputable leader of the group, is passionate and self-opinionated to the point of believing himself worthy of disciples. At the centre of his idealism is a belief that men should be bonded in friendships that will endure anything and create attachments stronger than marriage and romantic love. His desire to be close to Jack (Middleton Murry) culminates in a wrestling match between the two, mirroring the famous sexually charged scene in Lawrence’s Women In Love when Gerald and Gudrun wrestle. In the play’s case however, the scene is more comedic with the difference between the two men highlighted as Lawrence strips naked, ready to jump head first into the situation, whilst the bumbling, nervous Jack neatly folds his clothes into a pile and refuses to remove his underwear.

The women of the household are equally different. Frieda is vivacious and flippant, enjoying the controversy her presence as a German woman brings to life in the small village. Constantly gorging herself with food and sex, she is very much alive in contrast to the withdrawn loner, Mansfield. Whilst both are involved greatly with their respective partners, the intensely passionate relationship between Lawrence and Frieda, which sees the pair making love in the garden one minute and smashing plates over each other the next, could not be a greater contrast to the quiet, conservative nature of Jack and Katherine’s partnership, where the words unspoken fill the air with a heavy atmosphere.

In the end, it is Katherine and Lawrence’s similarities that push the four apart. The consequences of living with such creativity drives them both to dark mental states, isolating them from anything other than their desire to write, leaving Jack and Frieda devoted to partners who are impossible to live with, but impossible to live without.

CM

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