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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Mourning Becomes Electra
Lyttelton Theatre     Winter 2003-2004

Here is a great play in a sensitive production with some very fine acting. It would be a real shame if you let the fact that it is very long - four and a half hours - keep you from a most satisfying evening of theatre.

Eugene O'Neill's 1931 take on the Oresteia - general comes home from the war, is killed by wife and her lover, then avenged by son under daughter's urging only to have son tormented by furies - is one in a long series of his attempts to find dramatic metaphors for his overriding sense of Fate and human limitation.

Here, along with the overtones of Greek tragedy, he employs some then-fashionable Freudianism (Oedipus is never too far from the surface) and the uniquely American Puritan blend of pride and repression.

Written as a trilogy, the play is usually performed (if at all) in a heavily edited single go, and the cutting of this version, while still making for a long night, is particularly smooth and effective, eliminating some of the excessively simple psychobabble and keeping a clear and powerful human story at the centre.

O'Neill sets the play just after the American Civil War, with his Clytemnestra figure's resentment over a loveless marriage to her cold New England husband reaching a head in a passionate affair.

Ironically, the husband who comes home from the war has been deeply affected by it, and is ready and eager to make a new emotional connection to his wife just as she kills him.

Furthering the ironies, the daughter who adores her father and now finds new reasons to hate her mother can only defeat her by becoming more and more like her.

And the Orestes figure, totally out of his depth and merely a puppet of whichever family member speaks to him last, can only approach manhood through madness.

This is pretty dark stuff, and credit must be shared among O'Neill, for never losing sight of the central thing he wants to say about the tragic limitations life puts on individual desires, and director Howard Davies and his cast, for translating it so effectively to the stage, so that what might in less capable hands founder always remains an involving and moving human drama.

As the wife-mother-murderess, Helen Mirren gives a master class in powerful and controlled acting, traversing the play's emotional complexities without a single false step, keeping the character understandable and sympathetic even at her most monstrous.

Eve Best as the Electra figure must provide the play's emotional spine, and does so with an assurance that announces her as a major actress.

She must go from adolescent truculence to sexual jealousy, from paralyzed grief to avenging angel, from protector of her brother to cruel manipulator, from the very opposite of her mother to an exact copy.

Best navigates all these journeys while keeping the character who embodies these contradictions believable and tragic.

In only a couple of scenes Tim Pigott-Smith takes us into the heart of the father-husband who has found his humanity too late, while Paul Hinton shows an Orestes who is never given the opportunity to find his own identity except in madness.

Special credit must be given Bob Crowley's set design, one of the very best I've ever seen at the National - the exterior and interior of a grand mansion that subtly evoke the play's Greek, American and psychological vocabularies while also being eminently practical in playing terms.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Mourning Becomes Electra - National Theatre 2003

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