Mourning Becomes Electra, National Theatre, Lyttelton, London

Twilight of the snobs
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The Independent Culture

The director Howard Davies demonstrated the depth of his rapport with Eugene O'Neill a few years back, with a celebrated staging of The Iceman Cometh starring Kevin Spacey. His masterly touch with the founding father of serious American drama is proved once again in this extraordinarily fluent and fiercely felt account of Mourning Becomes Electra, the trilogy of plays in which O'Neill attempted to transplant the Oresteia of Aeschylus to New England in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.

What could have been a lumbering dinosaur moves across more than four and a half hours with a sureness of pace that never confuses momentum with mere speed. And it offers the moving spectacle of the theatrical old guard in expert co-operation with the new. If Helen Mirren commands the stage with a seasoned mastery, the thrillingly dangerous Paul Hilton gives notice of another great actor in the making as the cracked Orestes figure, while Eve Best takes you into the overcharged nervous system of his Electra-like sister, Vinnie, with a finely shaded sensitivity. She is responsible for the emotional through-line of this massive piece, and she makes that burden look light.

Given the resources and creative stamina required, this trilogy is not often mounted. It was last seen in Britain in 1991 at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre, where Philip Prowse's hollow, uninvolving production made the O'Neill's New England Mannon clan look less like descendants of the House of Atreus than the forerunners of Dynasty. You came away feeling that what you had seen was a glorified soap opera that reduced Aeschylus's concern with the civic as well as the psychological to the single issue of sex.

It is true that O'Neill's update does diminish the scope of the drama. When Agamemnon returns from the war in the Greek trilogy, his wife Clytemnestra murders him not just because she is having an affair, but in principled revenge for his sacrifice of their daughter at the behest of the gods. The full range of the human and the divine is called into play.

By contrast, Christine Mannon could seem like a mere Joan Collins figure, with her bitchy put-downs, her fatal potions, her egregious manipulativeness and her exultant pride in a younger lover who happens to be her husband's disowned cousin, a victim of the family's repressive New England snobbery. Helen Mirren does not underplay the melodramatic comedy of this. It's an often very funny performance. Witness the hilarious social graciousness ("Is it really you, Ezra?") rather than passion with which she greets the return from the war of her husband (affectingly played by Tim Piggott-Smith as a man who would like to surmount his limitations). But where Glenda Jackson was purely metallic in the Glasgow production, Mirren is molten, showing you a woman whose ardent nature has festered in a marriage that disgusts her.

The proceedings are electrified by the homecoming, in the second play, of her son, Orin, a lieutenant whose war experiences have given him an edge of black, subversive mockery, brilliantly conveyed by Hilton. "Murdering doesn't improve one's manners," he announces, playfully. Badgering his father's coffined corpse, he accuses the patriarch of having always been like a statue of an eminent dead man and, in a damning phrase, of "cutting [life] dead for the impropriety of living".

In Bob Crowley's splendid design, the portico roof of the Mannon mansion is symbolically emblazoned with a tattered US flag. This lowers to become the ship's deck from which the murderous siblings eavesdrop on mother and lover. The walls reconfigure to form oppressive interiors. The conversion of the Furies into inner demons is here savagely persuasive.

In the final stunning stage picture, the inside of the house has become a tomb. Heart-rending in her doomed hope of breaking the Mannon curse by marriage, Eve Best's Vinnie is forced to recognise that the only way to end the cycle is being buried alive.

The triology may not be great plays, then, but this production sweeps you into their world with a touch of greatness.

In rep to March (020-7452 3000)

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