You might be forgiven for approaching the Wyndham’s Theatre with a sense of trepidation for a play which lasts 3 hours and 20 minutes. Eugene O’Neill’s master work is a tour de force for any five actors brave enough to tackle this monumental drama and at its heart, O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a soul-searching examination of claustrophobic family dynamics, drug and alcohol dependency.
Much of the Bristol Old Vic’s production is commendable. The set is a clever interweaving of period design and minimalist modernism, it’s monolithic glass structure both encapsulating the feeling of claustrophobia and yet bringing in the threat of the “outside” with symbolic references to weather, the ebb and flow of coastal fog echoing the haze of morphine-induced mental decline of the matriarch, Mary Tyrone.
The Tyrone family’s summer home, a mixture of wood and wicker mismatched furniture, grand but not affluent, evokes the state of the family’s finances, but as the play unfolds it becomes clear that this is perhaps more emblematic of the miserliness of Mary’s husband James Tyrone (Jeremy Irons) than a lack of wealth. Irons is a dashing Tyrone and what he lacks in gravitas he makes up for in handsome grace.
James Tyrone’s relationship with his wife is complex. There are moments of cruelty – as James tells his sons “She’s so fat and sassy there’ll soon be no holding her” but rather than intending to insult, these barbs come with a sense of genuine affection which is at once unsettling and reassuring. The deliberate overlap of dialogue gives early scenes a sense of pace but occasionally the cacophony of voices can overwhelm the subtleties in the dialogue.
Lesley Manville’s virtuosic portrayal of Mary is as vulnerable as it is statuesque. She seems to live on her nerves – hardly surprising with one son throwing away his salary on whores and whiskey and the other a sensitive consumptive. The fog which seems to blight seaside Connecticut symbolises Mary’s mental state, as she stumbles through her days in a haze of addiction.
Often it is their sons who speak plain truth. James Jr (Rory Keenan) in whom whiskey seems to liberate verity, often at the expense of tact, seems to say what no-one else can – or what they choose not to. Keenan’s performance is solid, but bearing a passing resemblance to Brad Pitt helps distract from a vocal delivery that occasionally put me in mind of Krusty The Clown (another off-shoot from a dysfunctional American family).
Mary’s frail nerves are not helped by a sense of homelessness – this summer home giving way at long intervals to time spent on trains and in hotel rooms. Her sense of envy is palpable when the neighbours drive by in their new Mercedes but it’s their seeming respectability rather than their car which she really envies. “I have always hated this town and everyone in it” is said without malice, and there is a heart-breaking honesty when she tells her husband that “this home was wrong from the start” and that “the only way is to make yourself not care”.
Her neurosis plays heavily upon her relationships with her sons, both of whom care deeply for their mother, often manifesting itself in obsessing about details “Why do you look at me like that – is my hair coming down?”. Their father is seemingly trapped by his own obsessive compulsion to acquire ever more properties, albeit with mortgages attached – and both are victims of their own past.
Edmund, the younger son, is prone to coughing fits and is a cerebral being whose primary concern should be his own health (he is suffering from tuberculosis) but seems to care far more for his mother’s wellbeing. Edmund (played by an introspective Matthew Beard) is well-read and well-travelled – but in seeming to wish to portray this, O’Neill’s play often dwells in long languorous conversations about Neitzsche, Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman. While providing intellectually stimulating insight into O’Neill’s own influences (they are viewed with suspicion by James Tyrone who is a Shakespeare purist) conversations result in scenes which are often overly long and dramatically tiresome.
In a family dynamic further complicated by Mary’s blaming James Jr for the infant death of her second son, and accusations that her morphine addiction is due to her husband employing the cheapest doctor possible, scenes often repeat the same points and as a result the play feels over-long. Much needed comic relief is provided in the form of feisty Irish servant Cathleen (Jessica Regan) who lights up the stage every time she strides onto it.
Eugene O’Neill’s play is, as an intellectual examination of family dynamism and literary philosophy, a work of undoubted genius and Lesley Manville gives a performance worthy of an Olivier Award. For those reasons alone, this is a production worth seeing and worth sticking with. For this theatregoer, I just wished it had been 45 minutes shorter – sometimes, even in the presence of greatness, less is more.
You can buy tickets here for Long Day’s Journey Into Night for performances until 7 April 2018.
Running Time: 3h20m including one intermission
Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road
Nearest Tube: Leicester Square