Lady Chatterley’s Lover still carries a whiff of notoriety dating from the famous 1960 obscenity trial which finally resulted in the publication of DH Lawrence’s novel.
Its explicit descriptions of sex and use of four-letter words were very publicly aired and when the ban was lifted three million copies flew off the shelves.
But there is so much more to the story of the affair between an aristocratic woman and a working class man in the aftermath of the First World War, says Philip Breen, who is directing his own adaptation of the novel at the Crucible Theatre.
“In some ways the trial in the Sixties clouded our understanding of what the novel means. One of the reasons it has endured is that it’s about class, sex and war, three things the English are obsessed by.”
He argues that what it says about war – Lady Chatterley’s husband has been wounded in the trenches and rendered impotent – is the most vital.
“Lady Chatterley is one of the great anti-war novels,” declares the director who made his mark at the RSC with popular productions of The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Shoemaker’s Holiday. He says he is most interested in why things endure and World War One is an example and has arguably had a disproportionate impact.
“I did the Mystery Plays at York this year and they go back to the 1300s. Since then we have had wars that have been lost and won but in York Minster a memorial to the First World War fills a whole wall.
“There is something about that war that endures. I came out thinking, what is it we are remembering about it? Is it that so many died to remind me of their sacrifice while I am finding wars today problematic and nationalistic?”
The era (Lawrence wrote it in 1928) is also significant in other themes explored such as industrialisation, changing attitudes to class and sexual freedom.
And so back to the sex, which the British tend to be more comfortable treating as comedy in a Benny Hill, Carry On fashion but shy away from anything serious, he suggests.
There is a moment in the play where sex and war come together. “One of the most famous scenes in Lady Chatterley is when Constance and Mellors dance naked in the rain,” says Breen. “You cannot think about World War 1 without the impact of bodies. It was the first war where people witnessed violence on the body.” By that he means soldiers seeing their comrades blown to bits beside them.
And the sex will not be hidden. “The nudity is important, that first encounter where everything is out in the open. I want to make it anti-porn of the kind which fuels a teenager’s expectations of sex. To get a sense of spying on something that is tender and awkward, to share a space with two vulnerable bodies. You know Lawrence wanted to call his novel Tenderness?”
Lady Chatterley’s Lover opened at the Crucible this week and runs until October 5 and then goes on a UK tour.