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Mourning Becomes Electra, directed by Howard Davies at the National Theatre, LondonMourning Mourning
By Marvin Carlson

Mourning Becomes Electra
By Eugene O'Neill
The National Theatre, London



It is an ongoing embarrassment to the American theatre that one is distinctly more likely to see major revivals of American classics in London than in New York. Thus one of the major offerings in the winter 2003-4 season of the British National Theatre is Eugene O'Neill's epic Mourning Becomes Electra, playing in the Lyttleton from November 17, 2003 to January 31, 2004.

The production team is a powerful one, with an impressive case headed by two of the leading figures in the London theatre, Helen Mirren and Tim Piggot-Smith as Christine and Ezra Mannon with, in the central role of Lavinia, Eve Best, who burst onto the London scene in 1999 with a brilliant 'Tis Pity She's a Whore at the Young Vic, and who has since become one of the National's most honored younger actresses. Howard Davies, the director, is internationally known for his work at the National and the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as for a number of Broadway productions including the American classics Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Iceman Cometh. Designer Bob Crowley is equally well known on both sides of the Atlantic and for opera and musical theatre as well as for straight drama.

With such an impressive gathering of talents it would be gratifying to report that this production was brilliantly realized, but to be honest I found it more respectful than moving, more impressive in its ambition than in its achievement. To begin on a positive note, Crowley's design, especially for the Mannon front porch, is simply stunning. We do not see it head on as in the famous Robert Edmund Jones setting, but from one end, with the house running back on our right, perpendicular to the footlights, and the perspective interior roof of the porch covering most of the stage. Three large white columns have their bases on the porch, but instead of capitals, they extend up through frayed circular holes in the porch roof, which is painted in fading, decaying colors to represent an American flag. Beyond this porch is a dark void, with in the far distance a few tiny structures, possibly ruins, silhouetted against a red sky in the beginning which grows progressively darker. Parallel to the footlights, two long low steps leading up to the porch and scattered with fallen leaves, run across the width of the stage and are frequently used for intimate conversations.

The interior settings are less striking, but effective in their expressionistic simplicity. For each of them, a high red wall runs at a sharp perspective angle upstage, repeating the angle of the porch. Although the minimal furnishings-chairs, Ezra's bed, the study desk-suggest different spaces, the strong visual lines and color of the set make all these rooms seem much the same, and all of them perhaps better suited to Strindberg's Dance of Death than to the Mannon mansion. Brant's ship is considerably more daring and more successful. The huge flag/ceiling is lowered to form the upper deck of the ship, though running at a steep angle upward from right to left. Because of the holes in the porch roof it is able to drop down around the columns, which now read as masts. In the larger below-deck space to the left is Brant's cabin, and the scene where Orin and Lavinia on deck listen to Brant and Christine below, the pair often falling into the same physical relationships, is extremely effective. The lighting, by Mark Henderson, reflects that strong emotionality in this scene and others with sharp contrasts in volume and color of light in different parts of the stage and with powerful use of low lighting angles.

Mourning Becomes Electra, National Theatre LondonThe heavily Freudian relationships in O'Neill's work and their melodramatic expression offer a formidable challenge to even the best actors, especially in an era preferring subtler emotional effects. Too subdued and realistic a performance makes the lines and situations seem crude and extreme, while a more exaggerated style risks distancing the audience. In terms of blocking, Davis has decided upon a straightforward approach, which could almost serve as a textbook example of showing relationships through movement. The first scene between Adam Brant (Paul McGann) and Lavinia is typical, every nuance of their relationship carefully represented in the blocking, so that the constant pattern of her moving to a new location and his following and moving in on her in different area around the stage becomes so clear and repetitive as to be faintly comic. I suspect that an audience member who did not understand a word of English would be able to follow the tensions and relationships clearly through the movement alone. This might seem a virtue, but in a work with such clear and often repetitive development of emotional relationships it ultimately becomes rather flat and predictable.

A greater problem, however, is the acting, beginning with the accents. Some English actors can do American accents brilliantly. I will never forget how impeccably they were managed in Olivier's famous 1973 production of Long Day's Journey into Night. On the other hand even major productions can fail disastrously on this matter, as did Michael Gambon's much-honored View from the Bridge in 1987. Unhappily, this production is much closer to the latter model than the former, and to American ears it is almost constantly jarring. It is difficult to imagine just what sort of "New England" accent was being attempted, but it comes out as a mélange of standard stage British, Bostonian, modified southern (say, Tennessee), and occasionally distinct Brooklynese. Some actors naturally handle this better than others. Piggot-Smith is generally quite acceptable and McGann is not bad. Both Mirren and Best also do fairly well, although neither of them seems quite sure what to do with either r's or final g's, and in fact attempt a fairly wide variety of alternatives. Paul Hilton as Orin is a linguistic disaster, ranging up and down the east coast from Massachusetts to the Carolinas, with certain words and phrases that are unmistakably from Brooklyn. Jana Washington, listed as the dialect coach, claims some fifty productions in major London theatres among her credits, including not a few American works, some of which I have seen and found quite acceptable on this score. Perhaps O'Neill's somewhat hysterical New England speech was too eccentric for her, or perhaps the project did not allow her enough time (there was still a surprising insecurity in lines in general the night I attended, more than a month into the run), but the result was, at least for an American, most troubling.

Hilton's difficulty with his accent was by no means his own problem. Taking strongly the often repeated references to Orin's childishness, weakness and instability, he presented almost from the outset a character so internally disturbed, unpleasant, and erractic that he soon exhausted any sympathy or patience the audience may have had. This essentially left Best to carry the last half of the play alone, with little help from the crushingly bland Peter (Domnic Rowan) and Hazel (Rebecca Johnson). The clearest indication of the failing power of the later scenes in this production was that O'Neill's melodramatic relationships and situations, which the formidable acting skills of Mirren and Piggot-Smith had managed to keep convincing, even moving in the first half of the production, began to arouse audience resistance as the evening went on and the burden of the piece fell on Hilton and Best. The clearest indication of this was the laughter (never heard in the first half of the production) which began to greet such lines as Hazel's line to Orin, "I know something is worrying you," immediately following one of Hilton's semi-lunatic outbursts. When such laughter greets Hilton's portentous announcement, "I'm just going in the study to clean my pistol," it is clear that the audience's emotional sympathy for the production has been lost. Of course this is the stuff of melodrama, but the challenge of the play is precisely to capture the power of melodrama without tipping over in this way into melodramatic parody.

The production admittedly has many extremely powerful moments and sequences, especially in the scenes between Mirren and Piggot-Smith. Their first dialogue on the porch and final scene in the fatal bedroom display an admirable intensity and brilliant emotional range. But frontloading Mourning Becomes Electra with one's strongest actors, one of whom appears only in the first play of the trilogy and the other only in the first two, is almost a recipe for a disappointing arc in production.

The smaller roles are on the whole competently although not strikingly rendered, but James Smith does a lovely comic turn as the pompous Doctor Blake at Ezra's funeral, and Clarke Peters is one of the production's solid delights, both in the cameo role of the Chantyman and, more substantively, as the chorus/gardener Seth Beckwith, who always manages to convey by the subtlest of means that he understands far more about what is going on than this situation and his cultural placement allows him to say. One wishes that any one of the haunted Mannons had half his insight into themselves or their condition.


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