Edinburgh, at festival time, sheds its prim, proper and puritan facade and, after a third bottle of wine, in the boozy, wee small hours of the morning, many a project is conceived. So it was with Phoenix Rising.
In 1984, Paul Slack and I were performing at the Fringe Festival and discovered that we had much in common. My formative years had been spent in Fife and I knew the pit villages there very well - my maternal grandfather had been a shop steward during the 1926 miners' strike - and having been a post-graduate at Nottingham University, I was currently living and teaching in the city. Paul had been brought up in a small Nottinghamshire mining town; had trained and worked as a bricklayer and was then in his second year studying drama in Manchester. The combination of working class upbringings, coal mining, Nottingham and escape through education pointed us in one direction - D.H. Lawrence.
The following year, 1985, was the centenary of Lawrence's birth and so Phoenix Rising: The Young D.H Lawrence was written to reflect Lawrence's life in "the country of [his] heart". It was also performed to great critical acclaim at Nottingham Playhouse as part of the International D.H. Lawrence Centenary Festival. Paul left college, joined the acting profession and the play toured. In 1995, it was reworked for a further tour and there the enterprise might have ended. Phoenix Rising was written for Paul and I had no desire to work on it with another actor.
The present version of the play was written after Paul had recorded Sons and Lovers for Naxos Audiobooks and suggested that we might revisit the piece. Coming to it again, I was struck by the need for a substantial reworking of the original play. A middle-aged Lawrence looking back on his early life would necessarily do so with a wry amusement and an ability to reconcile himself to the people and events which the young Lawrence viewed with a much rawer emotion. It was also clear that the re-write would have to take into an account Paul's considerable skills as a mature actor. Hence the play's revised subtitle D.H. Lawrence: Son and Lover. The new Phoenix Rising premiered at Nottingham Arts Theatre in September 2010, twenty-five years after its inaugural performance. It was also performed to tremendous success at the 2011 Arts Festival in Adelaide.
Set in the year 1928 at the Ile de Por-Cros, Var, in France, Phoenix Rising finds D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda living on a small island off the Southern French coast. Lawrence is a very ill man and less than two years away from his own, untimely, death. An unexpected letter from David Chambers, the brother of his early and influential muse Jessie (Miriam in Sons and Lovers) spurs D.H. Lawrence to reminisce about his early life... aeons away.
In a series of animated snap-shots Lawrence presents the personalities and events which shaped his early life: including the stormy relationship between his parents; his own, frequently miserable, schooldays; the happiness he found with the Chambers' family; his work as a schoolmaster and the beginnings of his literary career. The portrait that emerges is that of a man who is able to view his life with a mixture of pathos and good humour - not necessarily the serious persona adopted by Lawrence in his writings nor the puritan sage of his biographers. That Lawrence was a complex and self-contradictory character, often out of step with his background and education, cannot be doubted but he was also the man whose songs and gift of mimicry enlivened gatherings at the Chambers' Farm and whose games and story-telling were so affectionately recalled by his sisters. It is this duality in Lawrence's nature which Phoenix Rising attempts to explore.
Praise for 'Phoenix Rising'
"Paul Slack gives a totally absorbing portrayal in a moving and skillfully scripted piece" -Sir Derek Jacobi
"...a power-house performance!" -Adelaide Advertiser
"An artfully contrived and skillfully presented exploration of a refreshingly original theme...moving and sensitive" -BBC Radio
"...great skill and dexterity" -BBC Radio
"Last night I saw the best one-man show on Lawrence in the tiny studio of the Nottingham Arts Theatre, beautifully played by Paul Slack and written by Campbell Kay. Really, if you can possibly make it phone the box-office. You won't be disappointed!" -Stephen Lowe - Playwright
"In this powerful and compelling one-man tour de force... the script stunning - the language both naturalistic and poetic. Every word comes freshly forged... Paul Slack's vitality is infectious!!" -Lawrence Society review