The scandal-plagued Lady Chatterley’s Lover may seem like a logical choice for today’s stage. After all, DH Lawrence’s novel about a sexually frustrated aristocrat who develops a taste for the rough-cut charms of her husband’s groundskeeper had an extraordinarily liberated attitude toward sex for its time. It’s still pretty racy in parts, but that’s the whole problem. Post-1960s sexual liberation has dated Chatterley quite badly on the stage – a fact that lashings of artfully presented T&A can’t change.

The play, written and directed by Glen Elston, hobbles itself from the beginning by ramping up the novel’s creakier aspects to ridiculous extremes. The decision to smother the story’s pathos under a blanket of camp is counterproductive. It’s understandable that the director wanted to shift the mood to lighten the tone, but this decision kills any possibility of genuine tragedy. Once the audience starts laughing at the characters, it’s virtually impossible to rebuild any emotional investment in their fates. The novel’s alternately joyous and tragic opening section, for example – in which WWI turns the Chatterley sisters’ German lovers first into enemies, then into casualties – is here delivered via a series of static, smirking tableaux, setting a feather-light tone for the rest of the play. This wouldn’t be such a problem if the play was simply intended to be a charming confection. But because the audience is ultimately required to care about the lovers, this parody-laden beginning saps the energy from the rest of the play.

The play’s deepest flaw is its knowingly ironic attitude toward the past. Several of the actors seem to subtly mock the ‘backwardness’ of their own characters, a habit which makes them seem like fusty, irrelevant antiques parading before an infinitely worldlier audience. Needless to say, a tragic sense is impossible under these conditions. For example, Lady Constance Chatterley herself (Hannah Norris) comes across as a sexually experienced woman champing at the bit from the beginning. As there’s no buried desire in her portrayal, it feels inevitable when she succumbs to Mellors’ charms. (I couldn’t help thinking of the contrast with Pascale Ferran’s 2006 film, where the protagonist’s struggle to break free of her emotional shackles is palpable.)

Soren Jensen’s playing Clifford (Lady Chatterley’s paralysed, impotent husband) for laughs compounds the problem. In the novel, Clifford embodies the dehumanising forces of industry, with Constance and Mellors’ love nourished and sustained by their resistance to his desire for control. But Jensen’s stock ‘cuckolded husband’ character drains Clifford of his menace. As Jensen’s self-aware mugging pushes the play firmly into ‘nudge-nudge wink-wink’ territory, it becomes clear that there’s nothing of genuine importance at stake. Only at the play’s conclusion, when Clifford finally realises his wife’s utter indifference toward him, does Jensen briefly evoke Lawrence’s character’s frigid isolation. It’s not enough.

The smaller parts are a mixed bag. Katharine Innes is fine as Constance’s socialite sister, but Olivia Connelly’s shrill performance as housekeeper Mrs Bolton reduces the stunted, mutually contemptuous relationship that forms between her and Clifford to farce. Her efforts later in the play to lend emotional support to Connie are drowned out by the hysterical shtick – another example of potential pathos being swamped by the play’s bawdy broadness.

Mellors is the only major character who survives the transition to the stage fairly intact. The accent’s a bit variable, but Jamieson Caldwell’s dignified presence perfectly evokes Mellors’ rough-hewn, unaffected desire, and his emotional sincerity and raw physicality is the only thing in the play that doesn’t seem like a museum piece. Yet even Caldwell’s lighter touch suffers from the gag staging – for example, when he and Connie cartoonishly leap over some vegetation in order to hump in the undergrowth. Cue laughter.

Perhaps Lady Chatterley’s Lover isn’t really suited for live performance anymore, except as a Valentine’s Day novelty. This may seem strange – after all, what could be more audience-friendly than hot young nude actors? But the love scenes yield steadily diminishing erotic returns. Despite all the bountiful nudity and enthusiastic rural trysts, this adaptation has all the passionate intensity of a saucy British seaside postcard circa 1935.

Over the eight decades since its publication (and almost five since it was removed from Australia’s banned list), it’s tempting to think that there’s nothing left in Lady Chatterley’s Lover for us. And if we’re just talking about the breaking of sexual taboos, that’s undoubtedly true. But the novel’s affirming belief in the transformative power of sexual desire is balanced by its acknowledgment of technocracy’s destructive impact on the human spirit. By neutering the story’s fear that anti-human forces may eventually triumph, the play is substantially diminished from its source material.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover: Australian Shakespeare Company, Ripponlea Estate, 31 January–8 March 2012.

Timothy Roberts is a Killings columnist and a freelance writer living in Melbourne.