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The Donmar is transformed into the baronial hall of a northern country seat. Dark oak panelling soars towards the ceiling, the whole dominated by a chimney breast, complete with iron grate and backplate. A fire crackles into life shedding its benign heat and light flickeringly over the carved furniture. No paintings or mirrors adorn the walls, just the dim bulb of an occasional mock-candle wall-light reveals the decay which seems to be seeping through the structure of the house. In one far corner a heap of sand soaks up the dampness, a bucket strategically capturing the drip, drip, drip from a faulty roof, and a mound of dust on the mantelpiece pointing to a particularly ravenous group of wood-boring beetles.
This is the home of Lady Monchesey, the matriarch of what appears an uncomfortably dysfunctional aristocratic family poised on the verge of annihilation before the onset of war with Nazi Germany. Lady Monchesey, or Amy, has called her extended family together, not to celebrate but to commemorate her birthday. She eagerly awaits the arrival of her three sons, the eldest of whom, we soon learn, has already been raised to the peerage at the death of his father. Lord Harry has had some troubling times. His wife has been killed in a tragic shipboard accident. All are concerned as to how this sensitive young man will respond to returning home after an absence of so many years.
Amy has kept the house just as he left it, shoring up the crumbling edifice as best she can, awaiting her son’s return and his longed-for breath of new life and vigour. It has been a long and bitter wait. Her beloved boys were never born out of love, more a sense of duty. Amy reveals a disgust at her willingness to prostitute her body to a husband whose love-interest lay elsewhere. The true extent of the late Lord’s infidelity becomes painfully clear. For now, all Amy has is the bitterness of old age and a general fear and loathing of change.
Harry does return, though not in the best of spirits. In fact, spirits are the very things which trouble him most. With a broad sweep of the classicist’s pen, Eliot conjures three Eumenides, ancient Greek deities which haunt those who commit a heinous crime towards one of their kin, which appear accusingly whenever the unfortunate young man least expects it. How far have Harry’s actions deserved such frightful intrusion? That is for him to tell us. For the moment, his fits and starts, reminiscent of Macbeth’s imagining of the ghost of Banquo, are disturbing to some of his family and thoroughly understandable to others.
The scene is set for an intriguing and artistically challenging theatrical experience. Challenging, because Eliot elected to compose his play in blank verse which, whilst not dominating the dialogue, does nevertheless impose a sombre rhythm all of its own. Occasionally, the cast unite to deliver a Chorus; strange imagery of fear and self-doubt juxtaposes with banal observation about social reality. Wealthy ladies and gentlemen, used to an age of pseudo-Edwardian splendour and etiquette, note the passing of their time and place. It is as though the whole family personify a class which Eliot, as an American-born-now-British subject, could observe and comment on with objective and cutting wit.
Gemma Jones is wonderful as Amy, the aging mother whose own health is so near to breaking point and who struggles on in the hope of passing the family name and home to her son. Jones’s portrayal of a woman whose comments can slice through all pretence, and whose life has been one of pompous martyrdom, is controlled and clear. Ably assisted by Una Stubbs’s Ivy, Anna Carteret’s Violet, William Gaunt’s Charles and Paul Shelley’s Gerald – Amy’s sisters and brothers – Jones creates a force to be reckoned with, but one whose health is painfully in decline.
Likewise, Samuel West, as his Lordship young Harry, cuts the perfect figure of a tortured aristocrat, unsure of his past and desperately unclear about his future. West adds a breadth of emotional experience to this character which makes the journey of self-realization all the more believable and, ultimately, all the more troubling. There is a deep sense of self-loathing in Harry as he admits the horrific truth of the last few months and confronts the demons which, quite literally, haunt him. Only an actor of West’s calibre could pull this off so convincingly.
Harry is aided in his quest for spiritual salvation, or at least just retribution, by his Aunt Agatha, played by Penelope Wilton. Yet again, Wilton gives a fine performance at the Donmar, this time as a woman whose obvious charms were not unnoticed by Harry’s father. It is Agatha who expresses her maternal duty towards the young son of her lover, far more than his real mother. Wilton explores this deep unspoken love with passion and restraint. Only Agatha and Harry’s childhood sweetheart, Mary (Hattie Morahan), see the truth behind Harry’s mental anguish. They, and the trusty chauffeur-cum-confidant Downing (Kevin McMonagle), whose cool and caring calculation of Harry’s emotional state comes closest to suggesting suicide as the inevitable outcome of his sorrows.
Jeremy Herrin has directed a notoriously difficult play with great skill and sympathy. Bunny Christie’s design takes Donmar realism to a new level. Combined, their efforts create a world so stylized in its Englishness, so replete in the signifiers of aristocratic complacency and decay, that Eliot’s verse-dialogue rings around the wood panelling like Greek tragedy in an Athenian amphitheatre. So many references – ancient drama, Dante’s Hell, Shakespeare’s blooded ghosts – spring to mind that there is little doubt the Donmar has tapped into a rarely-played group of masterpieces with its T. S. Eliot Festival. Only an amazing cast like this could have any hope of pulling such a difficult venture off. Yet again, the Donmar amazes.
Kevin Quarmby © 2008
Originally published on R&V 27-11-08
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