Harry Monchesney (Samuel West), the heir to a cold northern fastness called Wishwood, returns home like Orestes after eight years away pursued by the Furies of grief, guilt and anxiety over the death of his wife. She disappeared over the side of a ship in the Mediterranean. As in the case of the late tycoon Robert Maxwell, it’s not clear if she slipped or was pushed.
Eliot himself thought that Harry was an insufferable prig, but West makes something really moving of his insistence that he is living a nightmare and that the rest of the family is weighed down with the triviality of everyday life. But his mother Amy, Lady Monchesney, is similarly afflicted with grief when it emerges that her husband was plotting to kill her while carrying on an affair with her sister, Agatha.
Amy and Agatha, played respectively by a red-eyed, tremulous Gemma Jones and a chilling, uncompromised Penelope Wilton, bring a great undertow of anger and sadness to the play, while the chorus of aunts and uncles – a quartet of Cluedo characters played with icy precision and telling variety by Anna Carteret, Una Stubbs, Paul Shelley and William Gaunt -- voice the banalities that Harry objects to, re-grouping occasionally into a transfigured bunch of morbid commentators speaking in unison.
So we have Harry’s homecoming and Amy’s birthday party. The melancholic menace is further layered by the lost romance between Harry and the trapped spinsterish distant cousin, Mary (Hattie Morahan), an agent of childhood memories which prompts director Jeremy Herrin’s masterstroke: the playing of the Furies as three identical children and a fourth, older girl, representing the wiped out, sinister ghost of Harry’s dead wife.
Bunny Christie’s set, lit with magical harshness by Rick Fisher, is a high panelled mansion with broken windows and secret doorways, a grim kingdom of wasted lives and dreams. Harry’s two brothers are both involved in accidents offstage and never turn up. The local policeman (Phil Cole) and doctor (Christopher Benjamin) represent “normality” but Eliot’s nagging point is that sorrow seeps everywhere, and no-one is saved. The Donmar has reiterated what the RSC revealed nine years ago in Adrian Noble’s revival: the play’s an infuriating modern masterpiece.