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Last Updated: Monday, 29 December, 2003, 09:31 GMT
Mourning glory for Dame Helen
By Neil Smith
BBC News Online

Helen Mirren
Helen Mirren was made a dame in the Queen's birthday honours

Helen Mirren returns to the stage for the first time since becoming a dame in the National Theatre's new production of Mourning Becomes Electra.

First staged in 1931, Eugene O'Neill's play is a heady mix of familial intrigue, Freudian psychodrama and Greek tragedy that leaves the audience both exhilarated and exhausted.

Dame Helen is on superb form as the New England matriarch who murders her husband in league with her younger lover.

But her performance is matched by that of relative newcomer Eve Best as the vengeful daughter who exacts bloody retribution.

Body count

Clocking in at four-and-a-half hours, this terrific revival lasts the length of two Prime Suspects and has a body count to match.

The setting is America at the end of its Civil War, but the inspiration lies even further back in time - The Oresteia by Aeschylus.

You don't have to be a classical scholar to enjoy this play, but it does help to know Electra and her brother Orestes murdered Clytemnestra and her lover after they killed Agamemnon.

O'Neill thought this myth would be an ideal foundation for a "modern psychological drama" of "murderous family love and hate".

Helen Mirren and Paul Hilton (photo by Ivan Kyncl)
Helen Mirren cradles Paul Hilton in Mourning Becomes Electra
The first half of the play belongs to Mirren's lustful Christine Mannon, whose desire for sailor Paul McGann and hatred for her war hero husband (Tim Pigott-Smith) provokes a shocking crime of passion.

But in what looks like a symbolic passing of the flame from one acting generation to another, the focus shifts halfway through to Eve Best's embittered Lavinia.

Having persuaded her shell-shocked soldier brother Orrin (Paul Hilton) to avenge their father's murder, "Vinny" is sucked into a grim vortex of guilt, fear and incest.

As the author's deranged alter ego, Hilton comes to the boil so often he eventually runs out of steam. Best, though, delivers a titanic performance that puts both her and the audience through the emotional wringer.

Sexual jealousy

Director Howard Davies is no stranger to O'Neill's hefty epics, having staged The Iceman Cometh in 1998 with Kevin Spacey.

With help from Bob Crowley's Protean set design and Dominic Muldowney's moody music, he skilfully evokes an eerie world of forbidden yearnings, dark secrets and devouring sexual jealousy.

Inevitably there are some sluggish patches, and a comic interlude featuring the Mannon's ghost-fearing black servants now feels faintly racist.

But this is still a landmark production of a rarely revived play, with two British actresses at the top of their respective games.

  • Mourning Becomes Electra continues in repertoire at the National Theatre Lyttelton.

    Have you seen Mourning Becomes Electra? What did you think of Helen Mirren's performance? Send us your views.

    My husband and I saw the play at the November 17th preview. Although there were a few little blips typical of many opening night performances I thought it was nothing less than spectacular. Helen Mirren was in top form and Eve Best's portrayal of Lavinia was superb. Coming from a Canadian province where there are as many accents as there are bays and coves, I was able to understand and hence forgive the sometimes inconsistent attempts at southern American accents. That in itself is a monumental challenge and, overall, the cast delivered an ensemble performance.

    The set was absolutely incredible and minimalist enough to ensure attention would be focused on the acting. I LOVED the play and would see it again in a heartbeat!!!
    Gwen Tremblett, Newfoundland, Canada

    Beautiful. For once an actress who is held up and not glorified for the sake of it. Plus the added glory of supporting cast of astronomical proportions. See it. Please do.
    Mel Smith,

    I saw one of the previews and was enthralled by Helen Mirren's magnificent performance. All of the players were excellent and managed to breathe life into the play in spite of the gargantuan set. My only quibble: the accents they used were utterly unfamilar to me, and I have been in many of the 50 states. Most of the Mannon family members were doing a cross between Manhattan, Cincinatti, and Atlanta. (?!?) Other than that, I am happy to report that Mirren's fainting spell and the heart-attack-bed-scene were superb by the time I saw the preview; absolutely nobody laughed because those scenes were gripping.
    Lisa, USA

    For me the biggest revelation, and best male performance, was from Paul McGann, who I've not seen act on stage before. He created a wholly credible character (and, incidentally, spoke with the most fully consistent accent) and had more authority and presence than anyone on the stage excepting Mirren, Best, and Rebecca Johnson. Let's hope the National can get him to do more for it.

    One other point. The actors in Mourning Becomes Electra are trying to simulate a range of accents from the mid-19th Century United States. They do so, for the most part, perfectly believably. Even the strongest British and Irish actors, in a show that clocks in at just under four and a half hours, are occasionally going to hear their vowels slip. So what? Being in the physical presence of the actors, and accepting their human fallibility, is part of the interest and distinctiveness of live theatre.
    Simon Wilson, London

    It was nice to see Helen Mirren, Paul McGann and Tim Piggot-Smith at the National Theatre, however four and a half hours for any play is way too much! It could do with being cut back by about an hour.
    James van-der Heiden, UK

    Well, there's melodrama and there's overacting. The heart attack bed scene was hilarious. What with the cumbersome and oft-moved sets, the interchangable accents and the light-hearted staging, I thought this was truly dreadful. Very disappointing and not at all O'Neill. Give it a wide berth.
    Cath Dearth, UK

    Having just witnessed the 'debacle' that was Mourning, I can only sit in amazement at the above praise. It was horrendous. Not only were the accents appalling, sounding sometimes Irish, sometimes bad southern drawl, the play was ill-concieved and poorly performed.

    The lightness of performance has nothing to do with O'Neill's dark forces. I was shocked to find light-hearted jokes where none were intended, and a thoroughly 'London'/tabloid approach to sex, when the work deals with a Puritan New England, not too far from the time of The Scarlett Letter. Everyone giggled and smirked at this most deadly serious melodrama. A disaster.

    This is not O'Neill as it is meant to be done.The real O'Neill is bleaker than Ibsen and as fraught with horrific destiny as a Beckett anchored in time.
    Peter Carlin, United Kingdom

    Breathtaking, just so beautiful and well structured. Can't wait to see it again.
    Domino, England

    Though I am delighted to have seen this rarely mounted play that has long been a favourite to read, I feel the director missed the boat with the tone of the piece. Angling for more of a Gone with the Wind feel (light, Southern - eek those sundry and uneven approximations of American accents) than the more dense Puritanical tragedy it was written as. Eve Best did quite a wonderful job with a tour de force role.
    Sharon, France

    I initially thought "Why does it have to be so long?" - but my concerns about falling asleep in the stalls were swept away as I watched the events unfold. Believe me, it's a terrific production and the cast is flawless - Helen Mirren, Eve Best (up for an award, surely) and Paul Hilton are superb.

    And Bob Crowley's set is most impressive, as it rolls forward and back to reveal the exterior and interior of the Mannion house... and at one stage, transforms into a ship. The National Theatre has done it again!
    Andrew Buckingham, London

    Saw this earlier this evening - Helen Mirren was her usual excellent self but THE performance was from Eve Best - she was unbelievably good. Well worth sitting through the 4 hours 30 minutes!
    Jac, UK

    Outstanding as always. Helen Mirren was beautiful, believable and captivating. I agree completely with your reviewer.
    Ann Powell Groner, Denmark

    Electra-fying! Amazing stage set and Mirren and newcomer Eve Best are first class. I don't mind sitting through another 4 and a half hours of this.
    Jericho, England

    Helen Mirren performs with a breath-taking lightness of touch. She has the ability to evoke simultaneous distaste and empathy for her character. She captivates with her body movements. She both seduces and chills with her voice.
    Sheila Keating, United Kingdom

    I would agree with everything said above bar one aspect; I found that the set was clumsy and distracting. The cast, however, were all but wooden, 4 and a half hours seemed like 4 and a half minutes.
    Harry, UK

    My wife and I saw the play in previews. Very well done indeed. However, as others have commented, the accents were distracting. Connecticut is not in the south, and no one in the US pronounces 'past' (and similar words) as the English do. It would have been better to simply use UK accents (or the increasingly ubiquitous mid-Atlantic).
    George Woodrow iii, USA

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