A Moon for the Misbegotten, directed by Howard Davies. The Old Vic Theatre, London, England, September 15 - December 23, 2006.
The Old Vic is packed on Thursday night, December 7th, when I finally take my seat to view Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten, directed by Howard Davies.
It is my first taste of Davies directing O’Neill, as I did not manage to attend either his acclaimed 1998 Almeida production of The Iceman Cometh (which also starred Kevin Spacey, and which was then transferred to the Old Vic and to Broadway) or the 2003 production of Mourning Becomes Electra at London’s National Theatre (with Eve Best in the role of Lavinia Mannon). It is also my first time at the Old Vic, so I’m quite excited.
The stage is big, and covered with hay. The first thing that catches my attention on it is the row of telegraph poles on the left, a striking visual detail (particularly against the electric blue backdrop of the sky) which evokes wide open spaces, and which is never mentioned by O’Neill in his meticulous stage directions. On the right is the Hogan farmhouse, its façade heavily tilted as if to suggest the crooked, strained nature of its owners, and of life in general. At the far right, down stage, stands a trashy, worn-out armchair (not a Morris chair, as per O’Neill’s directions at the beginning of Act Two): apart from a water pump and a clothes line, it is the only prop on stage.
The play starts with a train whistle (another new “addition” to the text, which mentions none), and after the brief exchange between Josie (Eve Best) and her brother Mike, it is with the entrance of Phil Hogan that the show gets going. Colm Meany looks and sounds tailor-made for the part: he truly carries “the map of Ireland…stamped on his face,” and speaks with a pronounced Irish brogue, which sounds as natural as it is humorous. Best and Meany fill the stage and draw the audience into the scene with their masterful, belligerent, spirited and very physical acting. Although Eve Best is neither oversize nor freakish, her Josie comes to life as just the exceptionally strong woman O’Neill had in mind; however, and in spite of all her primal instinctiveness, she also possesses an inner softness and a core of shy, melancholic beauty, which begin to surface already in the first scenes.
By the time Jim Tyrone (Kevin Spacey) makes his entrance, the audience has learnt enough about the situation and characters to really enjoy the play. And Spacey makes it even easier to do so. His performance as Tyrone is nothing short of fabulous: his deep, low voice resonates with quiet emotion and honesty, while he delivers his speeches using a wonderful succession of comic and tragic tones. He never for one second sounds monotonous, and slowly peels all layers off his character, a technique which allows the audience to adjust to Jim’s final stage of soused desperation smoothly.
Another thing Spacey is very good at is to avoid playing Tyrone like a drunken cliché. As the play progresses and the alcohol intake increases, he manages to render Jim’s emotional roller coaster beautifully: his voice grows high-pitched but not to the point of sounding ridiculous; his gestures become unsteady but never look grotesque; his reminiscence of the past and of his dead mother is intense but dignified. Even the attempted rape scene is played touchingly, and we are made to share the guilt and sorrow Tyrone feels afterwards.
As Jonathan Croall writes in the (excellent) Old Vic programme: “O’Neill demands of the actors a bewildering mixture of despair, lust, pretence, honesty, cynicism, humour, cruelty and love.” Howard Davies was able to pull all of these nuances out of his acting team, as well as to highlight the complex relationships between the characters with deftness and precision.
So, with the exception of a few not-too-minor false notes (neither the set design nor the sound are entirely convincing: they both feel too “western” [at a certain point in the play coyotes are heard howling…?!] and more apt to recreate the atmosphere of a Sam Shepard play than of 1920s rural Connecticut), the result is a compassionate, moving, and wonderfully acted Moon, which promises to be a major hit on Broadway in a few months.
Anna Airoldi is a member of the Eugene O’Neill Society, and author of A Swedish-American Kinship: Eugene O’Neill and Lars Norén.
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