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A CurtainUp Review
Mourning Becomes Electra

I hate the daylight. It's like an accusing eye. No, we've renounced the day, in which normal people live - or rather it has renounced us. Perpetual night -- darkness of death in life -- that's the fitting habitat for guilt!
--- Orin
Mourning Becomes Electra
Helen Mirren as Christine Mannon
(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)
The National Theatre under new director Nicholas Hytner is on a roll. This new production of Mourning Becomes Electra comes in at a blockbusting, or should that be derriere bruising, four and a half hours and still it engages.

Eugene O'Neill's setting of the Electra tragedy at the end of the American Civil War is a sprawling work of quite exquisite poetry, yet it is also flawed. Howard Davies' production lifts this play into an extraordinary and memorable night in the theatre minimising the problems and emphasising the greatness of this drama. Helen Mirren, a star draw, heads the cast as Christine Mannon, the Clytemnestra equivalent character. From the moment the audience enters and sees the majestic set, a large colonial mansion with Greek revival pillars, the spacious veranda, the underside of the portico covered with a faded and fraying version of the stars and stripes of the American flag, they know that they are about to witness the grandeur of a special dramatic event.

The original legend of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon is a starting point for O'Neill's drama. The set symbolises the knocks that civil war has brought to the fledgling Unites States and in microcosm, to the Mannon family. Setting the play in the American Civil War reflects the internecine and interfamilial conflict that were also the Trojan Wars. The figure of Lavinia Mannon, the main part is a parallel to that of Electra, Agamemnon's grieving daughter who avenges the murder of her father. Electra isn't mentioned in Homer; and in Aeschylus, she is a marginal figure, disappearing after a few hundred lines never to be mentioned again. Only in Sophocles and Euripides is Electra a central figure.

O'Neill has Christine Mannon's lover, Adam Brant (Paul McGann) paralleling Aegisthus, the only surviving child of Thyestes, after Thyestes' children were served up to him in a pie by his brother Atreus, father of Agamemnon. We are told that Brant is Ezra Mannon's cousin, son of Ezra's brother and a nursemaid cast out and disowned by the family, so he has good reason to avenge himself on the Mannons.

O'Neill explores the psychological implications of the tragedy far more than the Greeks did. Greek tragedians really didn't care about in-depth psychology. The adverse effect that the murders have on Orin's sanity reflects the onset of the Furies, a physical manifestation rather than a mental disturbance. The part of O'Neill's play which convinces the least is Lavinia's experience in the islands which brings about so dramatic a change in her appearance and her personality.

To summarise the plot of Mourning Becomes Electra: General Ezra Mannon returns from the war to find his beautiful wife Christine, who hates him, has had an adulterous affair with his cousin Captain Adam Brant. Ezra tries to strangle Christine and when he has a heart attack, instead of giving him his medicine, she gives him poison. With his dying breath Ezra tells their plain daughter Lavinia that Christine is guilty. Christine and Ezra's son, Orin (Paul Hilton) returns from the war with a head wound. Ezra's children Lavinia and Orin come to realise their mother's guilt and Orin shoots Brant on board his ship but they make it look like a burglary. Christine kills herself when told of Brant's death. Lavinia and Orin leave the Mannon estate and go away to some tropical islands which Brant had talked about to Lavinia as a kind of paradise. When brother and sister come back to New England, Lavinia is transformed into an attractive woman. Orin becomes increasingly troubled by the past, dependent on his sister in a near incestuous way and commits suicide. Lavinia is left with her suitor Peter Niles (Dominic Rowan), talks about marrying him but at a crucial moment, calls him Adam and confesses that she has had a native lover in the islands. Peter leaves convinced that Lavinia has gone mad. Lavinia vows to be shut up in the house forever with the memories of her dead relatives to hound her.

Helen Mirren plays Christine, the woman in an unhappy marriage, although in this version her unhappiness is not the result of a parallel to the sacrifice of Clytemnestra's daughter, Iphigenia, but more the resentment of a woman in the wrong marriage -- feeling hatred for a man whom she loved before the marriage. A modern answer would seem to be repulsion at the sex act itself. As Christine says about Ezra (Tim Pigott-Smith), "He was silent, mysterious and romantic! But marriage soon turned his romance into disgust! " In a way Christine Mannon has lost a daughter. She cannot look at Lavinia without remembering the pain of her honeymoon when Lavinia was conceived. "You were always my wedding night to me -- and my honeymoon."

Mirren is magnificent whether battling with her unloved and unlovely daughter or with her husband. We see her desperately trying to wash her vulva after her husband returns and forces her to have intercourse, a scene which sums up more than anything else the misery of a dysfunctional marriage. As she lies about her lover, she pauses momentarily and looks askance at the audience, taking a second to compose her untruth. I especially liked the scenes when she tries to win over her returning son, to undo what Lavinia has told Orin.

Eve Best is exceptionally well cast as Lavinia, resentful and stolid in black, before there is any death to merit the wearing of mourning garb. She too changes effectively after the death of her mother into a colourfully dressed and flirtatiously attractive woman and one of my near sighted friends claims that she actually looks like Mirren. I didn't think so, but the wig and similar clothes may have convinced some. Paul Hilton is deeply believable and sympathetice as the troubled Orin. His almost pacifist speech about the war, how he became a hero by mistake rather than by design, is disarmingly moving. Tim Pigott-Smith has no warmth as the returning stern, military husband. I cannot fault the ensemble performances here.

Howard Davies has paid much attention to detail and gets it just right in this impressive, historically accurate production. He plays down the melodrama and gives us a believable though destructive family.

Sets are as imposing as the subject matter. The outside columns sweep back to reveal a mansion full of Shaker furniture, red walls and full length monochromatic family portraits. It is a spacious room but the red makes it draw in oppressively. The whole ship is recreated with amazing chimneys and sails, dark and smoky and authentic. The funeral scene, which involves the community gossips, is lit red and the people appear as if black crows in their mourning clothes picking over the remains as they dissect the family tragedy. The women float in crinolines; the local drunks hang round the house and sing "Shenandoah" for atmosphere.

This is a production full of darkness as reflected in Orin's speech about guilt in which he threatens to release his written version of the true family history. Even Lavinia mentions the lack of sunlight in her closing lines, "I'll have the shutters closed shut so that no sunlight can ever get in."

If you have the stamina for over four hours in the theatre, do not miss this important production of a great, but increasingly rare classic. The text is chock full of the quotable, poetic words we wish we could have written and the direction and performances are as near perfect as anything I've seen this year.

Mourning Becomes Electra
Written by Eugene O'Neill
Directed by Howard Davies

Starring: Helen Mirren, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eve Best, Paul McGann, Paul Hilton
With: Clarke Peters, Thomas Arnold, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Maxine Howe, Rebecca Johnson, Dominic Rowan, Beverley Longhurst, Karen Archer, Peter Eastland, Simon Merrells, James Smith, Felix Dexter, Lucian Msamati, Trevor Thomas
Music: Dominic Muldowney
Designer: Bob Crowley
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Sound: Christopher Shutt
Running time: Four hours 25 minutes including two intervals
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 31st January 2004.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 28th November 2003 Performance at the Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Tube/Rail: Waterloo)
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