Mourning Becomes Electra

Although the American regional theater has turned to Eugene O'Neill's 1931 triptych various times in recent years, Howard Davies' scorching reclamation of it demands attention on both sides of the pond, not least for the unflinching respect paid by the production to a text that can tilt toward the overripe.

It’s always night in the new London revival of “Mourning Becomes Electra,” and that’s just to note the encroaching darkness constantly hovering — in Mark Henderson’s lighting scheme — at the perimeter of Bob Crowley’s set. Far more disturbing is the blackness of the soul that defines Eugene O’Neill’s 1931 triptych and that here is sent hurtling unsparingly across 4½ hours (uncut, the epic play would run to more than six) up to, and including, a truly hair-raising close. Although the American regional theater has turned to this play various times in recent years, Howard Davies’ scorching reclamation of it demands attention on both sides of the pond, not least for the unflinching respect paid by the production to a text that can tilt toward the overripe. The American accents may at times wobble, but the commitment never does.

With an emphasis on “ghosts” not found even in Ibsen’s play of that name, “Mourning” spans a dramatic history starting with its Aeschylean source (“The Oresteia”) right through to Shakespeare, Ibsen and beyond, pausing to take a leaf from “Show Boat,” the sweeping 1927 musical that this play shadows in its musical refrain, “Shenandoah,” which is to O’Neill’s cursed Mannon household as the anthemic “Ol’ Man River” was to Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s depiction of life on the Mississippi. (As the gardener who is stuck singing it, the likable Clarke Peters does as well as anyone could.)

Plays can be important, however, without really registering on stage, and one watches Davies’ scrupulously managed account of the Mannons’ date with destiny fully aware of the potential for self-parody throughout. That the production maintains its (and an audience’s) sobriety through to its terrifying final image honors a consensual approach to the script that meets O’Neill head on, unashamed by his excesses and repetitions and fully attuned to the majesty of what just may be the most merciless of all his works.

Bein’ born was startin’ to die,” says Ezra Mannon (Tim Pigott-Smith), the brigadier general who isn’t long back at the New England family manse before his time is up. Pigott-Smith, in a terrific perf that makes his absence from two-thirds of the evening doubly noticeable, almost throws the remark away, and yet its resonances echo through the night in a vision of human duplicity and folly that more or less anticipates the comparable Beckett sentiment, “We give birth astride a grave.”

Playing the vengeful Christine, the Clytemnestra figure who can’t wait for her husband to snuff it so she can take up with Capt. Brant (Paul McGann, in the production’s one seriously misjudged, and worst-accented, turn), Helen Mirren is ideal casting. Stately and flirtatious, grandly witty yet pricked by bleeding wounds to the heart, Mirren is Lillian Hellman’s scheming Regina Giddens in embryo as well as a lethally self-aware woman whose severest lacerations are directed at herself. The actress is at her best spitting out the single exclamation “Live!” as she prepares to die, a murderess who can make peace “at last,” she says, with the sleep available to her only in death.

With a body count that includes two murders and two suicides, most of the principals have reached Christine’s state by play’s end, including the mother of all mama’s boys, Orin (Paul Hilton), the Orestes figure who returns from the conflagration of the Civil War to find a more intimate one burning at home. Orin, we’re told, has been “taught to kill,” and both he and Ezra bring the first-hand acquaintanceship with mortality acquired during wartime to a “tomb” of a house that seems to thrive on extinction.

Hilton’s perf may be the production’s most controversial, since the actor, so fine in the NT’s “Three Sisters” alongside Best earlier this year, can be disconcertingly contemporary, his posture and speech that of a modern-day slacker rather than an ornately spoken Mannon.

But Hilton’s almost wanton modernity contrasts well with Best’s poise and cool, not least in the utterly astonishing last hour or so that finds the siblings drawn toward one another in a wished-for renunciation of the day that merely gives rise to yet more familial rot.

That decay and deceit are the Mannon family way is clear from our first glimpse of Crowley’s imposing set, another study in New England minimalism (cf. his defining work on the Nicholas Hytner “Carousel”) against which the columns of the Mannon household loom ominously, hubristically large. Atop the columns sits a roof made out of a faded, tattered American flag: not the subtlest of symbols, perhaps, for a play that would seem to resist such visual reductionism, until one remembers that the National Theater design for “Angels in America” — and what is Tony Kushner but a modern-day O’Neill (indeed, he has contributed a first-rate essay to the “Mourning” program)? — contained an American flag torn portentously in two.

In human terms, the play’s most extreme ravages are inflicted on Lavinia (read Electra), the paternally obsessed spinster who claims to have sworn off love only to have its effects swallow her whole. Her face a mask in keeping with the “queer-looking” woman of mystery described at the start, the actress seems to crack open as first her father and then her brother vanish from her midst, leaving her consumed by the dead yet unable herself to die.

The actress survives O’Neill’s dodgiest writing: a sentimental reverie of her island days with some cavorting natives who danced naked, as natives tend to do. But for the most part, Lavinia couldn’t be less sentimental about fulfilling her ruthless, awful fate. And it is with that in mind that one looks on, awestruck, at the final, imprisoning coup of Crowley’s ever-shifting set, in which the emotionally restless, heartsick Lavinia is condemned to a living entombment, “the last Mannon,” or so we’re told, lost to the world forever.

Mourning Becomes Electra

Royal National Theater/Lyttelton, London; 898 Seats; £34 $57 Top

  • Production: A Royal National Theater presentation of a play in three acts by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Howard Davies.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Bob Crowley; lighting, Mark Henderson; music, Dominic Muldowney; sound, Christopher Shutt; movement, Stuart Hopps. Opened Nov. 27, 2003. Reviewed Nov. 28. Running time: 4 HOURS, 30 MIN.
  • Cast: Lavinia Mannon - Eve Best Orin Mannon - Paul Hilton Christine Mannon - Helen Mirren Ezra Mannon - Tim Pigott-Smith Seth Beckwith - Clarke Peters Hazel Niles - Rebecca Johnson Peter Niles - Dominic Rowan Adam Brant - Paul McGann <b>With:</b> Felix Dexter, Lucian Msamati, Trevor Thomas, Simon Merrells, Maxine Howe, Thomas Arnold, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Beverley Longhurst, Karen Archer, Peter Eastland, James Smith.