The Theatreguide.London Review
for the Misbegotten
Sometimes the most exciting thing to do with a classic is turn it on its head.
Imagine a production of Hamlet that paid more attention to Ophelia, or a Doll's House that was more about Nora's husband than Nora (I've seen that one - it was fascinating).
Eugene O'Neill wrote a play about a man at the end of his tether who finds an unlikely kind of comfort from an unlikely woman. Director Howard Davies and his cast show us a play about a woman who is given the unlikely opportunity to comfort a man. The shift in focus not only works, but makes for an especially moving drama.
O'Neill based Moon's central character, as he did in several other plays, on his older brother, a personable but self-destructive alcoholic. Jim Tyrone has reached that stage in his decline at which his awareness of how low he has sunk fills him with self-hatred and an emotional deadness that half-wishes for the real thing.
One of his few sources of pleasure lies in visits with the wily Irish farmer Phil Hogan and his sluttish daughter Josie, because he can drink and joke with them without pretence.
Josie has a couple of secrets of her own, the most readily visible of which is that she loves Jim, and on this particular moonlit night she sacrifices her own romantic dreams to give him some short-lived peace.
It is absolutely clear that O'Neill is primarily concerned with Jim, even though he has only two extended scenes and Josie is onstage almost continuously. But in part through casting, in part through fresh examination of the characters, and maybe in part through accident, this production is about Josie, discovering a whole new play inside the other one.
The first key step in the change was in casting Eve Best as Josie. Aside from the fact that she is brilliant in the role, Best is basically miscast. O'Neill's Josie is a large, unattractive woman, at best an earth-mother type, at worst the 'ugly overgrown lump of a woman' she calls herself. No matter how shapeless her dress or dirty her face, Best is unmistakably young, slim and attractive.
And amazingly that doesn't spoil the play, but enriches it. Instead of Josie's story being of an unattractive woman accepting that romantic love is not available to her and offering what alternative she can, it becomes the story of an attractive woman who doesn't believe she is, who is slowly convinced of her beauty by Jim's love for her, and who then chooses to sacrifice her dream of romance because she realises he needs something else.
That's a much more complex characterisation right off, and Eve Best draws us into it and takes us through Josie's emotional journey, subtly communicating every tiny nuance of her joys and sorrows.
And adding to this shift in focus is something that may not have been fully intentional, the fact that the nominal star, Kevin Spacey, gives a supporting performance, and not a star one, as Jim.
I'm really not sure whether Spacey is being extraordinarily generous as an actor or just limited in what he is able to bring to his role, but Jim is never the centre of our interest, always a 'feed' to Josie.
What makes me suspect it might not be deliberate is that Spacey, who should be able to do this role in his sleep, takes too long in letting us see the self-disgust and emotional deadness beneath Jim's joking exterior. So he and director Davies just let Jim become a less interesting character than Josie.
And when Spacey does have a big climactic scene of self-exposure, we're simply not as interested as O'Neill expects us to be, because by that point we feel that the play isn't about him.
Colm Meaney gives an unambiguously generous and supporting performance as Phil Hogan, feeding the other two the opportunities to make their emotional discoveries, while establishing and sustaining the underlying rhythm and reality of the play.
Those who know the play will be fascinated by this rich and involving new interpretation. Those who come to it fresh will discover a brave and moving drama.
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Review - A Moon for the Misbegotten - Old Vic 2006