On The Rocks

Court One, Christchurch

19/06/2010 - 17/07/2010

Production Details


Artistic temperaments and passionate relationships lie at the centre of ON THE ROCKS, a comedy-drama inspired by true events in the lives of literary icons D.H Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield. The Court Theatre stages the New Zealand première of Amy Rosenthal’s new play.

In 1916, Lawrence and his German wife Frieda invited Mansfield and her partner John Middleton Murry to form an artistic utopia in the Cornish town of Zennor where friends could live, eat and write together. Three months later the dream was shattered.

Claire Dougan plays the iconic writer Katherine Mansfield, who she describes as “a very complex woman to play. Mansfield is dealing with writer’s block and her brother’s death as well as a kind of ‘culture shock’ – she’s really unprepared for the intensity of Lawrence and Frieda’s relationship. It’s a fantastic role.”

Jon Pheloung lost over ten kilos to play Lawrence who was, at the time of the play, living in near-destitution as a social outcast due to his vocal anti-war stance, anti-German sentiment and accusations of obscenity in his work. “Although he was ill, he was still a massive personality – brilliant and passionate and at the same time very dominating and controlling” says Pheloung.

Jason Whyte, last seen at The Court in 2007’s THE SHAPE OF THINGS, plays Mansfield’s partner and eventual second husband, writer and literary critic John Middleton Murry. Whyte recently performed in the critically-acclaimed APOLLO 13: MISSION CONTROL at the Sydney Opera House and will tour the production to Australia and the US next year.

Ali Harper plays Lawrence’s passionate and hedonistic wife Frieda. Harper last appeared at The Court in the musical I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE! while pregnant; ON THE ROCKS marks her return to the stage.

Director Lara Macgregor believes that ON THE ROCKS is at its heart a play about “struggle: the struggle to love, live and pursue creativity in the midst of war.”
Rosenthal wrote ON THE ROCKS after a six-year struggle with writer’s block. In her return to playwriting, Rosenthal revisited an idea she’d ever since an A-level teacher introduced her to Mansfield’s stories at school; of exploring those outwardly idyllic but ill-fated months in Cornwall. There are echoes of Rosenthal’s creative anxiety in the character of Katherine, who struggled with writer’s block throughout her life. “I like to think [Mansfield] would be as thrilled as I am that ON THE ROCKS is being produced in her native New Zealand” says Rosenthal.

ON THE ROCKS opens on June 19. Macgregor encourages audiences to enjoy this play about “what happens when a friendship gets too close for comfort and a refreshing look at two literary titans who were, at their core, women, and men, in love.”

ON THE ROCKSVenue: Court One, The Court Theatre, Christchurch
Production Dates: 19 June – 17 July 2010
6pm Monday / Thursday;
7:30pm Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday
(no show Sundays).
2pm matinee Saturday 26 June
Adults $45, Senior Citizens $38, Tertiary Students $26, School Children $15, Group discount (20+) $36, Matinee $29 (26 June only)
The Court Theatre, 20 Worcester Boulevard;
963 0870 or www.courttheatre.org.nz 

Claire Dougan: 
Katherine Mansfield
Ali Harper: 
Frieda Lawrence
Jon Pheloung: 
D H Lawrence
Jason Whyte: 
John Middleton Murry

2hrs 50 mins, incl. interval

Honest insights and humour as Lawrentian ideals face practical realities

Review by Lindsay Clark 20th Jun 2010

Plays spun from the lives of literary figures seem to be on the increase, perhaps because we feel we have instant entry to their private thoughts, at least as they have been aired in the publishing process.

Amy Rosenthal’s bright new play however, says less about the writers involved than the strenuous and deeply comic stresses of friendship and love. We are faced with D H Lawrence and Frieda at the time when they attempt community living with Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry on a remote part of the Cornish coast in the middle of World War I.

If these names were lost for some of us in the general blur of distant English studies, the play would still stand strong as a collection of frequently captivating scenes, so that director Lara Macgregor can be well pleased with the ‘complex dynamics’ she refers to in her programme welcome.

Domestic disputes are irresistible material for drama and from the opening moments when Lawrence’s miserable palsied fingers prevent his writing, while an insouciant Frieda chomps on her apple, comedy is the chosen perspective. This has the effect of distancing us a little and the play does seem to take a good time to settle, with much business at the cost of real engagement with the characters.

As the suspicious outer world closes in and the tension between Lawrence’s hoped for ideal and practical reality becomes clear, the play gains immeasurably and moves to an absorbing climax.

The driving force is Lawrence, played with robust conviction by Jon Pheloung. We do not see the poet, or even the writer, so much as a passionate bid for self determination, trust and the harmony of a natural life.

His passion is echoed and enhanced by the omnivorous appetites of Ali Harper’s Frieda. Moreover, since she is German, she is the target of the wider world’s mistrust, enhancing the precariousness of the Lawrentian stand. The energy and warmth we have seen from Harper in musicals translates into a vivid role here and some of the inevitable poignant moments are hers.

Balancing this hectic couple are the urbanites, Mansfield and Middleton Murry. As Katherine, Claire Dougan achieves a crisp precision and the sense of a watchful observer, whose ways with words are incisive and at times deliciously acid.

Middleton Murry, played cleverly by Jason Whyte, is all reason and reserve. The wrestling scene with Lawrence, where he is forced into spontaneity, presents a wonderful metaphor for the attraction and potency generated by opposing forces. 

Harold Moot’s composite set presents elements of two cottages, an unlikely vegetable patch and a useful skyscape for Josh major’s lighting and Anna Dodgshun’s sound to embellish, while Jenny Cunningham’s excellent costuming confirms both period and character with authority.

Four strong characters then, sometimes paired, sometimes trying to exist as a foursome with the inevitable comic results, provide a unifying overview, although somewhere in there flickers also the need of the artist to be alone. Although Lawrence and Frieda will have to move on and the vision of harmony has not quite succeeded this time, there have been honest insights on the way.
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