No wonder there have been so few London revivals of this difficult play. Directors, actors and audiences have struggled to come to terms with TS Eliot’s attempt to combine a pseudo-Greek tragedy with a Freudian case study in the setting of a chilly English country house, not to mention creepy visitations and awkward switches between prose and verse.
Undaunted, Jeremy Herrin cleverly steers his cast to a wholly naturalistic performance without those monotone poetic voices of past productions. In particular Harry, the troubled Orestian hero, who returns to his family home pursued by avenging Furies, is played here by Samuel West with an almost insolent throwaway style that heightens and deepens the drama.
The greatest gain is in his long conversational encounter with Hattie Morahan’s Mary, the urgent exchanges between these brilliant young actors enjoying a Hamlet and Ophelia intensity, he angry and impassioned, she troubled and emotional, signalling her innermost feelings with subtle body language.
Picking up on a butterfly mention in the text, Herrin reduces the Furies to a trio of small boys with butterfly nets, while Harry’s dead wife makes an unscheduled but telling appearance at the start of the second act, a blithe spirit who quietly vanishes through the panelled walls.
The choric chants of a quartet of dotty aunts and complacent uncles are played absolutely straight by Una Stubbs, Anna Carteret, William Gaunt and Paul Shelley, between them also creating treasurable moments of comedy. But the great dramatic arias come from Gemma Jones as Harry’s doughty mother and Penelope Wilton as her jealous sister who coveted the child when he was first born.
Finally there is superb support from Christopher Benjamin as the family doctor, Kevin McMonagle as Harry’s aide and a splendidly huffing country police sergeant by Phil Cole, strong casting that should ensure a life for this fine production beyond the span of the TS Eliot Festival.