Phoenix Rising was originally commissioned for the D H Lawrence Centenary Festival in Nottingham. Although it only had a limited run of half a dozen performances, it was very well received by audience and critics alike, with particularly enthusiastic comments from Lawrence family members. It successfully toured through the UKand playing at the Adelaide Fringe Festival.
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, fre-quently 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 for mimicry enlivened gatherings at the Chambers' farm and whose games and story-telling were so affectionately recalled by his sisters. It is this dual-ity in Lawrence's nature which Phoenix Rising attempts to explore.
'A fascinating, sympathetic and highly enjoyable performance which evokes Lawrence's life and dramatises the many facets of his life and personality' (Prof Peter Preston: Prof. English Nottingham University and former Director of the DH Lawrence Research Centre)
....In a few deft touches he gives us Lawrence as a child licking home-made toffee off his fingers, the lad teased at school for playing with the wenches rather than the boys, relishing the warmth of the Chambers family, revelling in the touch of a friend. The young man is delighted at his first literary success - Prelude to a Happy Christmas which earned him three guineas from the Nottinghamshire Guardian - awkward in his foray into the higher world of letters (Ezra Pound ate a tulip while reading poetry), anguished by the deterioration of his unofficial engagement to Jessie Chambers, stunned by the death of his beloved mother. Mr. Slack leaps up onto a table to turn it into a farm cart. Strips off wing-collar and shirt to go swimming. Sings. Picks flowers. Marks essays. He provides an array of other people - Lawrence's father, mother, sister and brother, schoolteachers, Ford Madox Ford, W. B. Yeats. He conveys the tender wonder of his childhood, how his gruff father brings home an injured rabbit and how they give it a state funeral. He pictures the cheery life-and-soul of parties, the irritated Lawrence, the nature-lover, the man devastated as his mother dies of cancer when he is 25.....The double strand of the man's nature winds tight around us and we are keen to know more.Which is just as it should be." (Nottingham Evening Post)
What made DH Lawrence such a gloomy and introspective writer? Well, not all that much in his upbringing and formative adult years if this fascinating one-man show, devised by Campbell Kay is anything to go by. The writer has taken his information from Lawrence's early works and the reminiscences of his family, friends and contemporaries. At first glance there have been a rather formidable list of disadvantages in Lawrence's childhood, with his parents' unhappy marriage, the death of his older brother from pneumonia, and his torment at school where he would rather play with 'the wenches' than with the other boys. But author Kay and actor Paul Slack put all this across with such a chatty and light touch, that the great author emerges as a fun loving young man, full of jokes, anecdotes and mimicry of everyone from his schoolteacher to the formidable Ford Maddox Ford and even WB Yeats. Not that this is a shallow approach, for the material has been assembled with skill, and is put across so delightfully in the Nottinghamshire accent that comes naturally to Slack, that the audience is left believing this is how it really was with the young Lawrence. The turning point is reached with the long drawn out death from cancer of his mother, and the failure to form a conventional sexual relationship with his long-time friend Jessie Chambers. From there you feel it must have been all downhill for the Lawrence psyche, while his writing moved in the opposite direction. (The Stage)
How pleasant to know Mr Lawrence. What a thoroughly agreeable fellow he was, studious, thoughtful to others and of such good humour. Perhaps he would change later. This touring one-man show featuring actor Paul Slack, Nottinghamshire-born like his subject, is a look at controversial author DH Lawrence in his early years, from schooldays to the death of his mother when he was a teacher in Croydon, with his first novel published. Mr Slack gives us an absorbing portrayal, his delivery mixing seemingly spontaneous chat with bursts of literary declamation, together with swift cameos of such as DH's father and his stuttering schoolmaster.This is Lawrence biographers have not shown us - the phoenix before the fire- and it sends us away thinking afresh of him. (Derby Evening Telegraph)
Paul Slack, the actor who plays D H Lawrence in this one-man show has the great advantage of the right accent - he too comes from Nottinghamshire and is expert in conveying the varying degrees of regional accent without making the audience feel uncomfortable.Author Campbell Kay has skilfully woven together extracts from letters, poems, short stories and reminiscences to present a portrait of the artist as a young man, a teacher who has just had his first novel published and whose mother has just died, and frees him to start his emotional life.This is not the priggish self-absorbed Lawrence but a fun loving man full of jokes and mimicry. (Bristol Evening News)
The precise process of how to make potato cakes is not the first thing that springs to mind`when considering the life of Eastwood's DH Lawrence. But in Phoenix Rising a series of monologues paints a picture of the more intimate moments of the writer - from the pride of shining his mum's shoes to burying a wild rabbit his father had brought home as a pet after the animal died. Paul Slack, the sole actor for the play, tracks the colourful life of Lawrence from his first perceptions of his parents' frustrated relationship to the writer's cursory steps into the literary circle in London. Slack's passion and determination makes it impossible not to sympathise with Lawrence as he takes the audience through some of the more difficult times of his life such as his older brother's death, peppered with humour when he treads the heavy hesitant steps of the writer as a young boy walking to the front of the church for communion.
Slack has an armoury of accents up his sleeve that recreate the people that shaped Lawrence's character, but his greatest skill emerges as he manages to create precise snapshots of fleeting but vibrant moments in Lawrence's life. With just a table, two piles of books and a chair in a small room at the back of Nottingham Arts Theatre, Slack manages to illustrate every movement and process to prepare, make, cook and taste potato cakes - as well as clear them up so his mother doesn't notice. Lawrence's frustrated relationship with his muse Jessie, as well as his confused approach to sex is portrayed with a sensitive but unswerving honesty by writer Campbell Kay. And one of the most noteworthy moments of the play is when Slack takes on the character of Lawrence's father to illustrate his parents' rocky relationship. His father's alcoholism leads to him striking his mother but with his sensitive style Slack manages to create both sympathy for Lawrence's mother and pathos for his father as the writer looks back on their relationship with the benefit of hindsight. (Nottingham Arts Centre, Claire Carter)
In Phoenix Rising Paul Slack's acting is nuanced and subtle by turns comic, as the haughty schoolboy instructing his sisters in the making of potato cakes, or deeply moving when, in later life, recalling the death of his beloved mother. This is a performance of great strength and dexterity by an extremely gifted and talented actor, who gives a totally absorbing portrayal, not only of D H Lawrence but of the many other characters who shaped his early life. Campbell Kay's play is a skilfully scripted piece, blending gems from Lawrence's writings with the reminiscences of his family and friends, to create an excellent dramatic experience which is consistently entertaining and, ultimately, profoundly moving. I thoroughly recommend it! (BBC Radio, Richard Spur)
Author's Note: by Campbell Kay
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, Scotland, and I knew the pit villages there very well - my maternal grandfather had been a shop steward during the 1926 Miner's Strike - and, having been a post graduate student and 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 brick layer and was then in his second year at drama school. 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: The Phoenix Rising: The Young D H Lawrence was written to reflect Lawrence's life in the county 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 revived 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.
This present version of the play was re written after Paul recorded Sons and Lovers for Naxos Audiobooks and suggested that we might revisit the piece. Hence its revised subtitle D H Lawrence Son and Lover. The new Phoenix Rising premiered at Nottingham Arts Theatre in September 2010, 25 years after its inaugural performance, and I am delighted that Guy Masterson, with his flair and expertise, is taking this production to Adelaide. Campbell Kay