Mourning Becomes Electra

Eugene O'Neill
RNT Lyttelton
(2003)

It is time to pay tribute to the National Theatre, which has had an absolutely storming year througouth the transition from Sir Trevor Nunn to Nicholas Hytner. To manage only a single dud amongst so many major hits is a really fine achievement.

Howard Davies' four and a half hour version of O'Neill's reworking of The Oresteia is characterised by high (and clearly very expensive) production qualities, a very good cast and much overwrought emotion.

Bob Crowley's massive set will be loved both for its aesthetic and mechanical qualities. It changes from the outside of the Mannon mansion to its interior smoothly. With a crumbling, holed Stars and Stripes canopy it symbolises the end of the American Civil War and start of the family one. It then goes one better as it breathtakingly becomes a ship's deck and lower quarters.

Crowley will inevitably win many awards and could find lighting designer Mark Henderson joining him. His main theme is romantic, rosy dusk and never does he overlight the often beautiful, artistic images. These are enhanced by Davies' direction, which means that actors are constantly seen in dramatic profile.

The first act or play, The Homecoming, sees the wicked, adulterous Christine Mannon played by Helen Mirren in good form. She and her daughter, Eve Best's Vinnie, battle over the handsome Adam Brant (Paul McGann) and the good name of the family's patriarch. Tim Pigott-Smith is the returning war hero Ezra, who has no chance of survival in this tug of hate.

The Hunted is perhaps the weakest part as, following Ezra's death, the mother-daughter battleground moves to the shell-shocked or possibly brain-damaged son/brother, Paul Hilton's Orin.

The Haunted brings the trilogy to a satisfying ending, after brother and sister have fought with each other and the family ghosts. It ends with a startling, tragic image that will haunt viewers for some considerable time.

Director Howard Davies ensures that intimations of incest are not missed as mother and son, father and daughter and siblings all form close alliances. This might even be the explanation of the feckless Orin's madness.

The real highlight is in the acting, first of Miss Mirren, who combines passion with treacherous hatred, and then of Eve Best. She is always good but on this occasion surpasses her own high standards, as the ugly duckling daughter whose tragedy is to grow into her beautiful but unbalanced mother, with all of the suffering that entails.

Mourning Becomes Electra may be a long evening, although a 6.15 start means that it is possible to catch last trains. For those with a little stamina (Miss Best in the forefront as she is almost always on stage), it is richly rewarding.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher