Samuel West, Penelope Wilton, Anna Carteret, William Gaunt, Gemma Jones, Christopher Benjamin, Kevin McMonagle, Ann Marcuson, Hattie Morahan, Paul Shelley, Una Stubbs
The Donmars two-month-long T.S. Eliot season, which includes rehearsed readings of Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party, plus performances of The Four Quartets and other poetry, opens with a rare staging of his 1939 verse drama The Family Reunion.
With its antecedents in Greek drama rather than Shakespeare, this modern treatment of classical themes within a Christian consciousness could be described as drawing-room tragedy.
The plays richly oblique language and slow-burning drama present a challenge to performers and audience alike, but Jeremy Herrins splendidly atmospheric production makes as good a case as possible for this fascinating but flawed work.
As the title suggests, the play revolves around a family get-together, marking the birthday of the aged and ailing widowed matriarch Amy, Lady Monchesney. She is hoping that her eldest son Harry, who is returning to their country estate in the north of England after an eight-year absence abroad, will finally take over as head of the family. They have been estranged since Harry married a woman she disapproved of but who died under mysterious circumstances a year earlier.
Reconciliation does not come easily in this repressively gloomy household, however. Apart from his domineering and demanding mother, Harry is confronted with elderly uncles and aunts stagnating in their narrow-minded, trivial lives, though he feels some affinity for his more sympathetic Aunt Agatha and his young cousin and childhood playmate Mary. The sense of unchanging solidity proves to be illusory, as the disturbed Harrys revelations about his wifes death are matched by the exposure of a long-concealed family scandal, so that the celebration turns into a post-mortem.
Eliots intention was to show how the rituals and routines which we cling to for a sense of security can suddenly give way to a black hole of doubt and uncertainty, with the mundane lying cheek by jowl with the eternal. As an Anglo-Catholic convert, there is an implicit message of the importance of faith. Harrys existential crisis, in which he is literally haunted by ghosts from his past, opens his eyes to disturbing visions which the others cannot see.
Although Eliots high seriousness is mixed with some urbane wit, the play is still heavy-going, creaking as much as the crumbling family mansion. This is very much a cerebral experience, with a few moments of suspense and even horror, in which it is difficult to engage with these remote aristocratic characters who dress for dinner and have baths run for them by servants. Sometimes it seems almost like a metaphysical version of Poirot or Cluedo, with well-mannered and impeccably dressed toffs discussing murder in a country house, especially when the local police sergeant turns up to report the two absent younger sons have been involved in separate accidents.
Nonetheless, Herrins production is terrifically spooky, portentous rather than pretentious, with dramatic appearances by the spirits of Harrys dead wife and three avenging furies in the form of his younger self. Bunny Christies marvellous set conjures up an almost gothic feeling, with hidden doorways behind the fireplace, dusty wooden panelling and leaking roof. Rick Fishers superb lighting is particularly effective when the chorus of chanting elderly relatives is spotlit with their shadows enlarged on the wall, while Nick Powells sound effects add to the ominous ambience.
The cast deliver Eliots highly wrought dialogue with assurance. Samuel Wests restlessly tortured Harry, wracked with guilt over his wifes death and searching for some deeper meaning in his life, conveys real intensity. Gemma Jones gives the manipulative Amy genuine pathos, while Penelope Wilton lends Agatha a serene melancholy and Hattie Morahan suggests Marys frustrated desire to escape.
As the chorus, William Gaunt is an amiable clubman who knows he is out of his depth, Paul Shelley a blustering ex-colonial soldier, Anna Carteret an embittered snob and Una Stubbs a well-intentioned but nave spinster, while Christopher Benjamin is the avuncular doctor summoned to find out whats wrong with Harry though it turns out that his troubles are well beyond the help of medical science.