Why is there a pile of sand in the corner of the austere drawing room of a grand country house? This and many other questions remain unexplained in T S Eliot’s complex, mysterious play The Family Reunion, revived at the Donmar Warehouse.
Bunny Christie’s set is an imposing, wood-panelled drawing room, low-lit by candles which throw long shadows on the walls. It is here where all the on-stage action takes place. Lady Amy Monchensey has summoned her extended family back to the ancestral home where she still resides, to hand the house over to the favourite of her three sons, Harry, who hasn’t paid his mother a visit for eight years. Also summoned are her sisters and brothers, who range from the twittering, cake-loving Ivy, to the sharp-tongued Violet and a pair of port-swilling elderly men, Charles and Gerald. Last, the impenetrable Agatha (Penelope Wilton, whose 1930s hairstyle really suits her) sits among them, speaking in riddles and seemingly possessing a mysterious knowledge relating to Harry that sets her intellectually above the others.
Eliot’s play, which is partly written in verse, toys with themes of death and time. Harry’s childhood friend Mary (Hattie Morahan) has remained frozen in time at the house during the eight years that have taken Harry around the world. A clock ticks ominously, as if counting down to the characters’ final moments on earth. Gemma Jones’s Amy is preoccupied by death – both her own and that of her unaware siblings.
Samuel West’s Harry, when he arrives, is tormented by the death of his wife in what were perhaps not so mysterious circumstances as his family believed. The spirits that torture him are sometimes seen on stage, particularly in one well-staged, chilling moment in which they spring from nowhere.
Eliot was reportedly influenced by Greek drama, and these spirits, along with the chorus that he creates out of four uncles and aunts, reflects that; Ivy, Violet, Charles and Gerald speak in unison to the audience, reciting Eliot’s haunting, surreal verse. His writing in this play recalls another of his works, the children’s poetry book Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats, which was published in the same year as The Family Reunion. Despite their entirely different subject matters, they share a similar sense of the absurd, with gentle comic timing in their spoken rhythms.
Jeremy Herrin’s confidently staged production highlights the surreal within the ordinary, as Eliot’s characters struggle with their various torments. Part ghost story, part drawing room drama, part cryptic crossword, part murder mystery, this is a mind-twisting, intriguing centrepiece to the Donmar’s T S Eliot festival.