The TheatreguideLondon Review
T.S. Eliot's 1939 drama is an attempt to fuse the structure and metaphysics of classical Greek tragedy with the Christian ethos of sin and redemption, in the setting of an English drawing room and in verse.
It is, as you might imagine, pretty heavy going. But Jeremy Herrin's production tackles it head-on, and with a uniformly excellent cast, comes as close to bringing it off as is likely to be possible.
Eliot's central character is the Orestes-like heir to a title and noble home, driven almost to madness by the sense of some sin he has committed and must be punished for. A return to his mostly-uncomprehending family only intensifies his anguish until he learns that it is not the burden of his own sin that he is carrying, but the curse of the previous generation's lovelessness and mutual betrayals.
The new understanding of his pain does not remove it, but it makes him more able to bear the weight and even to see the vague outlines of how he might be able to lessen it through expiation.
All this inevitably requires a lot of allusive talk about sin and ghosts and redemption and forgiveness of those who cannot understand, and your appreciation of the play will depend in part on your appetite for lines like 'the partial anaesthesia of suffering without feeling' or 'Perhaps I only dream that I have been talking and will awake to find I have been silent.'
And yet, when delivered properly - and most of them are - lines like these can resonate and show us they do have meaning beneath the glibness - 'The past is about to happen and the future has long been settled,' for example, or 'To rest in our own suffering is evasion of suffering. We must learn to suffer more.'
As I said, this isn't light stuff, although there are a surprising number of chuckles around the edges, mostly at the expense of the hero's out-of-their-depth relatives.
To his credit, director Herrin does not hide from any of the play's challenges. The verse is spoken as verse, not disguised in colloquial rhythms, and the sequences in which family members react like a Greek Chorus are played as such, in worry-filled unison recitations.
The three leading roles seem almost impossible to play, except that the actors master them brilliantly. Samuel West defines the haunted man with a stress on his intelligence constantly at work, trying to cope with his anguish and reaching hungrily for understanding.
Penelope Wilton is the loving aunt who guides him toward clarity, but the character is also conceived as a kind of Cassandra figure, given to gnomic utterances that bewilder most hearers, and Wilton walks the delicate tightrope between poetry and realism with exquisite skill.
And Gemma Jones matches her sensitivity and delicacy by showing how very much it has cost the iron-willed family matriarch to keep everything from crumbling before now.
That the supporting cast is led by William Gaunt, Anna Carteret, Una Stubbs, Hattie Morahan and Christopher Benjamin - all beyond criticism - is an indication of the very high level of acting throughout.
And that is certainly one of this production's greatest attractions. Even if you don't accept - or quite grasp - Eliot's vision of inherited sin, you can bask in some of the highest-quality ensemble playing London has seen in a long time.
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Review - The Family Reunion - Donmar 2008