Long Day's Journey into Night
By Eugene O'Neill
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
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O'Neill's greatest work has been called the saddest play ever written. This is because its truth is so personal. He excavated the pain and loneliness of his early years in creating the fictionalised Tyrone family to mirror his own, the retired Great Actor was very close to his father, the morphine addicted mother, the alcoholic older brother and the budding poet Edmund was a version of himself. This quartet are frustrated and disillusioned by life and have all suffered a loss of faith of various kinds but the play never judges them or preaches to us. It was so personal to him that even though he finished it in 1941 he locked it away, stipulating in his will that it not be published until 25 years after his death. Thankfully, his widow disobeyed and it was premiered in 1956, three years after his death.
Richard Eyre's production, which began at Bristol Old Vic, couldn't be more perfect. He has given it a modern sensibility without damaging its core. It runs at a cracking paces and dialogue overlaps and nobody really listens to each other, just as in the bustle of all family arguments. It's as if everyone has their litany to recite, their tale of woe, but each time they repeated it, it is under different emotional circumstances and so the piece resembles a kind of symphony.
Lesley Manville's interpretation of Mary is both vivid and bold. She presents her as the saddest kind of drug addict, stuck in a funk, continually blaming everyone else for her situation, refusing to change and getting lost in her deceptions. Her constant whine about never having had a home and proper respectability, here looks more like an excuse than a tragedy. She's either foggily strung out or high as a kite and when in that latter mode she bursts with a girlish impishness. She bemoans her solitude but it is she who drives people away. There is no vanity in Manville's portrayal and unlike many previous stars in the role she doesn't play her for sympathy. It is great too that Manville currently has received a long overdue recognition of an Oscar nomination (for Phantom Thread).
Jeremy Irons too has never been better. We knew he'd personify the Great Actor with ease but there is a wonderful warmth in this patriarch. Scarred by childhood poverty he's incapable of seeing beyond his own miserliness. Eyre has managed here to make this quartet gel as a family and what is revealed is that however much they wound or even savage each other, underneath it all they are bound together by a deep, familial, affection.
Casting is perfection here. Jessica Regan's witty take on Cathleen has her canny but still gormless. Irish actor Rory Keenan brings a welcome lightness to Jamie – primed to follow his father's footsteps he ended up mired in whores and debt and booze. He “can't help what the past has made him" says Mary, but he's going to enjoy himself along the way.
Then there is the boyish, precocious Edmund of Matthew Beard, so lean and lanky that Mary can nestle under his chin. Beard was Tony nominated for his stage debut and he demonstrates again that he's going places. It's deeply sensitive take on a part which can often tilt over into preciousness. The famous speech about the fog is delivered not airily but more matter of fact. There's a keen intelligence at play and his Edmund is heartbreaking. As it is his diagnosis of consumption that unleashes so many layers of denial in the family, it is the pivotal role.
Rob Howell's beautiful translucent set is a perfect complement to Eyre's approach. It respects the traditional naturalism but yet mimics it. The Tyrones are not just encircled by the New England fog of their rented seaside home. Here it's as if they're birds in a beautiful cage.