The Family Reunion, RSC at the The Barbican Pit
Eliot's retelling of the Oresteia gets a rare revival at The Pit. Originally written in 1939, not the auspicious time to introduce a new play, it predates the Four Quartets by a couple of years but the essence of the later work is there throughout this haunting play. It's a story of sin and expiation, and of the deadwood of the past and of family history that descendents must learn to live with.
Eliot's avowed intention was to bring poetry into the theatre and Adrian Noble's sparse and uncluttered production allows plenty of room for the words to resonate around the auditorium. In truth, this is not a play of dramatic images (although there is a superb coup de theātre in the first act), and indeed there are a couple of moments of expediency that drive the plot forward in quite an unrealistic manner. But no one expects tight plotting and keenly observed characterisation from Eliot - the poetry's the thing.
In this transference of the action from Argos to the north of England, Harry, the eldest son of Lady Monchensey, has returned home following the mysterious death of his wife. He confesses to his mother and her stultifyingly boring sisters and brothers-in-law that he killed her and is haunted by the images of the Furies who pursue him. In a dramatic conversation with his aunt Agatha, dark secrets of the past are revealed, he understands that the supposed uxoricide was all in the mind and that the ghosts were part of his childhood and rooted in that very house.
Greg Hicks' Harry shifts superbly between the moods. In the course of the play, he is frightened, arrogant, haunted, violent and hurt. Scarcely able to bring himself to touch any members of his family, save his aunt Agatha, the Athene character who saves him from his torment. In this role, Lynn Farleigh is equally strong, she hovers outside the main family group, both as part of the action and outside it.
In fact, the acting is of highest class throughout, Margaret Tyzack holds the stage as the indomitable matriarch, aware that the old order is dead, the family is breaking up and the realisation that her time is almost up. And Cherry Morris, Bridget Tuner, Nicholas Jones and Christopher Good are excellent as the family members whose vapid twitterings fill in the background to the events - and who, in a nod, to the Greek origins of the play, act as the Chorus.
One fashion note: just as in the recent RNT production of the Oresteia, the Furies appear in stocking masks. It appears that opaque tights are really in this year in Hades.
Note: The following review dates from this productions 1999 run in Stratford. It runs in London from 29 February to 4 April 2000.
A few English poets have also been great dramatists. Unfortunately, T.S. Eliot was not one of them. Murder in the Cathedral seems very much a one-off, if the RSC's new production of Eliot's The Family Reunion is anything to go by.
To describe it as 'a country house murder mystery', as the RSC does in its publicity, may not be a breach of the Trades Descriptions Act, but it is misleading. This play is not about outward events, but the spiritual state of Harry, Lord Monchensey, who returns home after an absence of eight years for his mother's birthday party and a family reunion. He arrives burdened with guilt but, in the course of the evening, resolves this and leaves with a new spiritual purpose.
This production has had the RSC's finest resources lavished upon it. The company's artistic director, Adrian Noble directs the play himself, in its most exciting auditorium, The Swan, with a fine cast of talented actors, led by the magnificent Margaret Tyzack. But the dead weight of Eliot's heavy spiritual symbolism drags them all down. Of course it's wonderful poetry, but on the stage, Eliot's words sink under the weight of their own profundity. Greg Hicks, in the central role of Harry, has an urgent way of speaking which sacrifices the beauty of the language in an attempt to extract its meaning. But despite all these riches, the play just doesn't work in the theatre.
I kept wishing it was on Radio Three. More would have been gained by having the text open in front of you, than would have been lost by not seeing the stage picture. The Furies who vengefully pursue Harry are, perhaps, more effective left to the imagination. The materialisation of them here, first as clawing devils behind a distorting mirror, then as softly gliding silhouettes, reduced the party of school-girls behind me to uncontrolled giggles. Irritating as such behaviour is, they did have a point. It worked for Aeschylus in The Oresteia, but it doesn't work here.
Those maiden uncles and aunts who were shocked this season by the blatant sexuality of the RSC's Midsummer Night's Dream or the rampant male nudity of Tales from Ovid, may welcome The Family Reunion as a safer bet. Certainly it's more theatrical Valium than Viagra. But they are as likely to be as puzzled about the play's meaning as Harry's uncles and aunts.
The Family Reunion opened at The Swan, in Stratford-upon-Avon, 16 June 1999 (previews from 9 June) and continues in repertory until 7 October.