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|A CurtainUp Review
The Family Reunion
By Lizzie Loveridge
We do not know what we are doing, We have lost our way in the dark-- The Chorus
I am an admirer of T S Eliot's poetry. I think his verse is beautiful. In this, for me, a first viewing of The Family Reunion it was a pleasure to hear his verse spoken with clarity by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company ensemble.
The play itself is a curious melange of The Oresteia, Aeschylus' tragedy of Orestes, pursued by the Furies for the murder of his mother Clytemnestra, and a 1930s English country house drama, written in verse. Set in 1939, Greg Hicks leads as Harry, Lord Monchensey, beleaguered and dogged by the faceless ones as he returns to his home, Wishwood, for his mother's birthday. His unsuitable wife has conveniently drowned at sea in mysterious circumstances. Hicks, a thin figure in his white linen suit and with a dark and brooding face, sometimes seems unhinged by inner demons but he always brings understanding and rhythm to Eliot's verse by stressing one salient word in a line.
Amy, the Dowager Lady Monchensey is played ably and imperiously by Margaret Tyzack, the disappointed senior member of her family who is attempting to hold everyone together. Staying at her house are her three sisters and her dead husband's two brothers. These relations, Harry's aunts and uncles, are almost caricatures; for example, the colonial soldier who's insecure away from his servants and the aunt woman who has no good to say of anyone. Scenes end with four of the relations talking in unison as in a Greek chorus.
Lyn Farleigh as the youngest sister, Agatha, is different and detached from the others but a lucid and eloquent observer with a special affection for Harry. She rivalled her eldest sister for the affections of Lord Monchensey, Harry's father. Now, as a principal of a women's college she represents women with ability and intelligence as does Mary (ZoŽ Waites) a poor relative and Harry's cousin who is treated little better than a servant.
The play opens in near darkness, to the sound of the sea and the overly loud tick of the clock, with a tableau of figures, some standing, some sitting on bentwood chairs, in Rob Howell's minimalist set. At the rear is a huge sloping window which by night can reflect the occupants of the room. In daylight, the green, polished to a shine floor is dappled with light resembling sunlight through the branches of leafy trees. I thought that it was a master stroke of design to put these people in 1930s period costume but to place them on a bare set rather than the more usual country mansion set overstuffed with the furniture, paintings and the trappings of generations of ancestors. The Pit is a small studio space and seemed at times to cramp the cast but the upside of this meant that we could be close enough to the actors to feel the tension.
T S Eliot felt that there was a problem in how to portray the Furies. Adrian Noble successfully solves it by letting the dark suited, Homburg hatted, faceless figures, grope with white gloved hands, struggling to get in through the window which is smeared red with blood. As all the reasons for Harry's demons unfold, the Furies metamorphose into the Eumenides, or the Kindly Ones and Harry decides to leave Wishwood. Completing the play, in a moment of theatricality, Agatha and Mary hypnotically circle the lit candles on the birthday cake, chanting in a ritual of expiation,
Round and round the circle
Completing the charm
So the knot be unknotted
The crossed be uncrossed
The crooked made straight
And the curse be ended
Eliot's language casts a spell which cannot be undone, although I still wonder whether a radio play would serve as well to focus on his poetry. This is not a criticism of this particular production which is brave and more than competent but of Eliot's own mix of genre. I am glad I saw The Family Reunion but I think overall, I prefer my Greek tragedy out of Aeschylus and my country house drama in J B Priestley's An Inspector Calls . . . and my T S Eliot in The Waste Land.