A huge US flag forms the ceiling of the Mannon family porch in the National's epic production of Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra. Some might be tempted to confuse the decor with Buckingham Palace's star-spangled portico, recently constructed in honour (if that's the right word) of President Bush's visit. However, the stars and stripes are far more evidently tarnished and war-torn at the NT, courtesy of director Howard Davies and his set designer Bob Crowley.
In O'Neill's 1930 reworking of the tragic Greek myth about forbidden desires and violent deaths in the palace at Argos, the action is translated to a clapboard mansion in New England circa 1865. This is right at the end of the American Civil War. We gather President Lincoln has been assassinated while, on a more personal front, the patriarch Brigadier General Ezra Mannon (Tim Piggott-Smith) hopes his homecoming will mark a fresh start and a more loving relationship with his wife, Christine. Like Agamemnon, Ezra walks into a death-trap as Christine (Helen Mirren) and her daughter Lavinia (Eve Best) fight for supremacy over him, over Lavinia's brother Orin, and over Adam Brant - a seafaring captain who has been wooing both ladies. By the end, they have all taken each other's or their own lives, with the exception of Lavinia.
Be warned, this cycle of crime, maddened guilt and retribution goes on for four and a half hours, which feels a shade sadomasochistic. O'Neill was a dramatist who didn't know when to stop and - though this is not quite a case of Mourning Becomes Teatime Becomes Night Becomes Never-Ending - one may grow exasperated when history repeats itself too obviously. The Freudian complexes that plague this family are spelled out heavy-handedly, too. Moreover, though O'Neill's own plays are seen as a revolutionary Oedipal reaction to his father who was a 19th-century stage star, awkward vestiges of old-school melodrama linger here. One occasionally wonders if it's not the set but the plot audibly creaking.
Yet for all its flaws, this piece is still impressively strong. Most strikingly it comes across as an anti-war protest with reverberations down the ages, in that Orin (Paul Hilton) returns home psychologically damaged by the carnage he has seen. Though they are relegated by O'Neill to a decidedly underdeveloped subplot, issues of racial equality also hover on the periphery with Best sharply bringing out the mix of fond trust and imperiousness Lavinia shows towards the loyal black gardener, Seth (comical and dignified Clarke Peters). Really, the Mannons' sexual complexes aren't particularly American, but O'Neill's pessimistic vision is specifically directed at the Puritans' new-found land as incurably fallen. In fact, the whole American dream of leaving your past behind and starting over is gloomily contested by this play.
As for the production itself, it's intriguing to see this rarely aired play performed by a fine ensemble. Crowley's set changes do start to seem lumbering after a while but the conversion of the portico into a looming ship is a stunning coup de théâtre. The tension often crackles, too, for Mirren is on excellent form, constantly pulling you back into ambivalent sympathy with her malign, manipulative character. Best is quite her equal, continuing to prove herself a riveting, intelligent actress who can exude both steely resolve and vulnerability. That said, she and Paul Hilton have a little further to go before they become searingly poignant in their private, inescapable hell.
After Miss Julie isn't Michael Grandage's most adventurous bit of programming as the Donmar's artistic director. Strindberg's fin de siècle classic about the aristocratic young lady who sleeps with the valet is pretty staple fare these days. Patrick Marber's adaptation, shifting the scene to an English country house in 1945, was also broadcast on BBC TV eight years ago. Nevertheless, Marber's update is politically neat. He makes Miss Julie's wild night of class transgression - originally linked with a festive midsummer dance - coincide with celebrations of the Labour Party's landslide victory after the Second World War. Grandage's production also seems surprisingly topical in the light of the Windsors' tricky relations with former staff members right now.
The valet, John, is in an even more deeply ambiguous position than O'Neill's Seth. John is subservient by training but has acquired many sophisticated tastes and ambitions and, though he is unofficially engaged to the cook Christine, the unstable Miss Julie is flirting with him mercilessly. Designed by Bunny Christie, the below-stairs kitchen setting of Grandage's production is beautifully detailed, from its grey flagstones to its slightly soiled windows panes - still taped against shattering air-raids. Richard Coyle is quietly superb as John, with a broad northern accent and a laddish swagger but also sensual gentleness. Helen Baxendale is unobtrusively excellent as the long-suffering but unbowed Christine. But unfortunately, their performances are superior to Kelly Reilly's as Miss Julie. Her crass seductive posturing and high-pitched Sloaney whine is irksomely monotonous.
Richard Bean's new play The God Botherers is mildly disappointing after Under the Whaleback, his award-winning trawler saga. This time he has penned a darkening comedy about foreign aid workers who aren't as politically correct as they like to pretend and who are caught up in tensions "somewhere in the developing world" between Islamic extremists and other faiths. William Kerley's production is certainly slick and well-paced, with Roderick Smith as the affable, but possibly abusive old hand at the HQ and Georgia Mackenzie as his naive new assistant. David Oyelowo is enjoying himself as the matey local hawker. But Bean doesn't seem to have much to say, preferring quips to fully formed characters. More development work needed, dramatically speaking.
'Mourning Becomes Electra': NT Lyttelton, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), to 31 Jan; 'After Miss Julie': Donmar, London WC2 (0870 060 6624), to 7 Feb; 'The God Botherers': Bush, London W12 (020 7610 4224), to 20 DecReuse content