Saturday, 3 January 2009


30/12/08, Donmar

2hrs 30 (?). T.S. Eliot’s peculiar hybrid of drawing room whodunnit-cum-Greek tragedy given a Rolls Royce revival by the Donmar.

A mouthwatering cast. Penelope Wilton as Agatha, the sister who escaped to become principal of a women’s college at Oxford. Sam West as Harry, the son who returns eight years after his marriage to an unsuitable woman he has probably murdered, tormented by the Furies. Una Stubbs and Anna Carteret as the other sisters, small-minded, stupid, beautifully-dressed in 1940s upper-upper-middle fashion who, with their equally pompous, stupid and conventional husbands (William Gaunt and another chap whose name and face I didn’t recognise) also supplied the occasional Greek chorus-style interludes, speaking in unison. Gemma Jones as the eldest sister and manipulative lady of the house. There was even a tiny part for Christopher Benjamin, as a country doctor and old family friend – this was a play that had fun with many of the well-made play’s theatrical clichés, which also included a comic police sergeant, a couple of wise domestics and a remarkable amount of plot. The set included a massive fireplace, a huge mock-Tudor mullioned window, a number of rather cold-looking chairs and, in the second act, a large dining table with candles which were, don't you know, blown out at the end.

Most of the time the verse was not obtrusive. It forced the cast to speak in a deliberate fashion, but possible no more deliberate than one would have heard on stage in the 1940s in a conventional drama. It allowed for surprisingly naturalistic exchanges, sometimes quite funny. It also, of course, allowed for non-naturalistic elements such as the choruses and the intense metaphysical debates between Harry and Agatha and Harry and Mary (an Agatha-in-training who clearly fancies Harry). And for Eliot anoraks there were numerous riffs echoing things elsewhere in his poetry: the cruelty of spring (cf opening of The Waste Land); the door into the rose garden (cf the opening of Burnt Norton); the confusing business of time present, time past and time future (cf ditto).

Much of the superficial plot was perfectly straightforward, with the brooding materfamilias intent on luring Harry back to run the house and estate from which he has clearly been running away (pursued by Furies that only he is aware of but has been unable to see until he returns home – or so it seems… It turns out that his manservant has seen them all along, and Agatha and Mary become aware of them during the course of their exchanges with him). There is no father, so this might be Oedipal – but it turns out the father had left after an affair with Agatha, after which his wife had kept him hanging around in a loveless marriage, long enough to father two more sons as well as Harry.

The bits I didn’t understand (but then Harry kept saying “you don’t understand”, so maybe that was OK) were the metaphysical exchanges in which Harry becomes fully aware of his situation, finds hope in hopelessness, has some kind of epiphany, resolves to go off and do good works etc etc. Dense enough on the page, probably, but almost impossible to follow on stage.

The Furies appeared twice – three little boys in cream shirts and shorts carrying butterfly nets, and a female fairy-like figure in a long white dress we may assume was Harry's ex-wife. The boys entered through the audience and crossed the stage diagonally, looking menacing; the ex-wife appeared (and rapidly disappeared) at the window in a coup de theatre. They represented the lost childhood of Harry and his brothers, A thought. They were appropriately unsettling, though in the original production according to a quote from Eliot in the programme note they proved hard to embody convincingly. In this production much was done with lighting – bathing different parts of the stage in pools of light for the choruses etc. There were also by the end small heaps of sand in various corners of the stage, which I'd completely failed to notice from our seats right round at the side: A said sand had been trickling intermittently onto them from the flies during the action.

If I have a beef it was that Eliot showed a worrying tendency (a bit like his contemporary and fellow Anglo-Catholic Charles Williams) to delight in the physical embodiment of the supernatural, which is never very convincing. Much better leave everything unstated and implied.

Agatha, I discover, was the saint whose breasts were cut off. Now what should one make of that?

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