The Theatreguide.London Review
Beyond The Horizon
Cottesloe Theatre Spring-Summer 2010
Eugene O'Neill's late masterpieces were such towering achievements that it has become critical orthodoxy to dismiss the first half of his career as juvenilia or unplayable dead-end experiments.
But now here comes a sterling revival of his first full-length play (from 1920), to prove that all his dramatic and tragic powers were there from the start, along with a poetic eloquence we don't normally associate with O'Neill.
Beyond The Horizon is the story of two brothers raised on a New England farm. Robert is a poet and dreamer who longs to go to sea to discover the world beyond his horizon, while Andrew is happy and skilled as a farmer.
But when the girl they both love chooses Robert, it is Andrew who generously leaves home.
Time passes, and we watch as Robert proves unsuited to be a farmer and he and his wife sink into poverty and bitterness.
Meanwhile the unimaginative Andrew sails the world and sees none of it, becomes prosperous as a merchant but loses his sense of roots and identity.
That may sound schematic, but O'Neill dresses it in solidly realistic setting and characterisations that carry all the play's tragic weight while never losing a sense of everyday possibility.
In effect, O'Neill creates the Tragedy Of The Common Man almost three decades before Arthur Miller claimed to invent it.
In this production visiting from the Royal and Derngate Northampton, director Laurie Sansom treats the play with the respect and honour it deserves, and brings out all of its power, as well as guiding his cast to superb performances.
As Robert, Michael Malarkey begins as the young man expressing his dreams in honest crude poetry and then progressively shrinks into himself as the small world of the declining farm closes in on him.
Michael Thomson has a quieter role as Andrew, but quickly establishes a sense of salt-of-the-earth honour and solidity, so that the tiniest cracks later in the play will resonate sadly.
Liz White takes her character from innocent and impulsive youth to nagging harpy and then beyond, to hopeless resignation; and as an older generation Jacqueline King, James Jordan and Joanna Bacon skilfully contribute to the sense of reality within which the tragedy is played out.
Beyond The Horizon is not flashy, but it may well be the best written, best performed and most moving drama in London.
And a footnote: the same company is also performing in Tennessee Williams' early play Spring Storm, giving us an experience the National Theatre itself has deprived us of for too long - the pleasure of seeing the same actors in complementary or contrasting roles on consecutive evenings.
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