A party of guests assembled by the absent Lavinia Chamberlayne stand awkwardly around the Chamberlayne’s London home while Lavinia’s husband Edward makes his best attempts at small talk with the diverse group. Amongst them, we meet the cuttingly witty force of nature that is the elderly Julia and the bumbling well-travelled old gent Alex. However, in-between the repartee, we begin to notice the excuse for Lavinia’s absence doesn’t seem right and the boisterous fun of the cocktail party becomes darker.
Eliot’s problem-play-cum-drawing-room-comedy tackles the idea of the human condition head-on in an increasingly absurd production that looks at identity, happiness, and sacrifice, both emotional and physical. It reflects on choices made and not made, focussing on the claustrophobic feeling of ‘what could have been’ that arises as a result of an inescapable and deleterious situation. Lavinia and Edward find they are stuck in their marriage, unable to follow their hearts’ desires due to deep personal flaws that are brought to light. The play’s conclusion is troubling and unsatisfying and seemed to leave the audience in a slightly bewildered state. Although it’s generally agreed the play takes inspiration in part from Greek mythology, Eliot used the script to exorcise a lot of his own demons about institutionalising his own wife in an asylum. As a result, the Greek-influenced high drama about deeply nuanced human emotions in the staid atmosphere of a respectable drawing room can feel uneasy and misplaced.
The language is not quite poetic and is not nearly as dense as some of the poetry for which Eliot is more well-known, but it is certainly aphoristic and preachy, reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s Importance Of Being Earnest in that way. That said, it is definitely a cerebral play and, at nearly three hours in length, there’s plenty of time to ponder the many moral messages.
There are some fabulous performances from the cast, most notably Marcia Warren, whose gin-soaked, sharp-tongued character Julia mentioned above is one of the most spectacular characters Culture Or Trash has seen on the stage in a while.