Neil Dowden in the West End
6 February 2018
Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night was not staged until 1956, three years after his death. O’Neill wrote the play in 1941 but did not want it performed in his lifetime as its semi-autobiographical portrait of a family ripped apart by tragic events was too painfully close to home.
Rory Keenan and Matthew Beard. Photo credit: Hugo Glendenning.
What makes it more poignant is that despite the intimate concern they show for each other, the family members seem destined to destroy any hope of domestic harmony. This acclaimed production by Richard Eyre starring Lesley Manville and Jeremy Irons, first seen at the Bristol Old Vic in 2016 before belatedly transferring to the West End, does full justice to the play’s uncompromising vision.
As its sombre title suggests, the drama takes place on one day in August 1912 at the Tyrone family summer residence on the Connecticut coast. Mary Tyrone has recently returned home from a sanatorium after being treated for addiction to morphine (which she started to take to alleviate her pain after the birth of her youngest son Edmund). Her celebrated actor husband James deludes himself that she has now kicked the habit, but her sons Jamie — an alcoholic playboy — and Edmund — a budding writer with tuberculosis — realize with sickening disappointment that, despite her fervent denials, she has relapsed.
O’Neill reveals the tensions and frustrations within and between the characters with unflinching truth. Although the young Mary fell in love with the charismatic James when he was playing a romantic role, she is bitter at having been unable to create a stable family life due to being perpetually on tour with him; also, she is still mourning the death of her second son Eugene who caught measles from Jamie. As a poor lrish immigrant who has made himself wealthy and invested in property but lives in fear of losing it all, James skimps on paying for good medical treatment for members of his family.
Jamie, an unsuccessful actor who lives in the shadow of his father, is angry with him for his destructive miserliness (though he sponges off him), but also despite wanting to protect Edmund, he cannot help blaming him for the start of their mother’s addiction and latest lapse because she is worried about his health. And the morbidly poetic Edmund (a penetrating self-portrait of O’Neill) is in danger of falling into a life of aimless passivity.
The play is shot through with grief, guilt, resentment, and recrimination, but what prevents this production’s three hour-plus descent into darkness becoming unbearable is the amount of tenderness and compassion that is shown. Like O’Neill’s other late, great plays The Iceman Cometh and A Moon for the Misbegotten, Long Day’s Journey into Night is a big, baggy play full of verbosity and repetition with very little humour to lighten its fog-like gloom, but it proceeds with the compelling intensity of Greek tragedy and provides a cathartic-like release by the end.
Jeremy Irons as James. Photo credit: Hugo Glendenning.
Eyre’s moving production keeps the play at a high emotional pitch without turning it into melodrama. Rob Howell’s semi-naturalistic design has solid period furniture but a strangely translucent marine-blue perspective, reflecting the alternating states of the characters between reality and illusion. Peter Mumford’s gradual extinguishing light and John Leonard’s mournful foghorn sound reinforce the sense of ineluctable doom.
Mary is superbly played by Manville (who won an Olivier Award for her performance as Mrs Alving in Eyre’s production of Ghosts a few years ago) as an almost spectre-like, nervy figure with a heightened state of consciousness, remembering regretfully her well-to-do religious upbringing and unfulfilled potential as a talented pianist as if describing a different person. Irons also impresses as the rather pompous, Shakespeare-quoting James who nonetheless genuinely rues “selling out his art” by repeatedly performing one lucrative role, a self-made man cheapened by his over-valuing of money.
Rory Keenan is unusually sympathetic as the self-loathing Jamie, bent on self-destruction but able to see clearly through the lies and delusions of the others. Matthew Beard’s Edmund is not so much a sensitive victim of circumstance as an angrily frustrated misfit — and of course we know his real-life counterpart, despite ongoing misfortunes, went on to establish himself as the first great, and possibly greatest, American playwright.