A family summer spent by the coast is sewn through, as an image, with threads of the idyllic. It should be saccharine and sticky, painted with pastels and daubed with strawberry ice cream stains. The disturbance of this symbol of the family as functioning unit makes the reality of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night all the more uncomfortable. As with Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the positioning of the story on the coast becomes a reminder of the fragility of the familial relationships. In both works, the strip of land next to a dark sea and the constant obsession with weather has all the characters seemingly positioned on the edge of the earth itself, not just their patch of summer residence.
It is this much scarier, more precipitous version of the coast that Rob Howell has captured with accuracy in the beautiful but intensely claustrophobic set design. At first appearing to be made of wood, the walls are instead of slightly dirty, scratched Perspex. We are in a house of glass that at every moment is threatening to shatter onto its occupants. Veering off at every angle apart from 90o the disjointed pieces of the Plexiglas puzzle send perspective hurtling into the distance whilst at the same time significantly foreshortening the cavernous Bristol Old Vic stage. Howell’s mirror maze reflects the floor onto the ceiling, topsy-turvying the characters as they independently rotate through space.
The changes in the daylight as the narrative develops over one day and the final blanketing of the ever-prophesised fog, are intensely felt through Peter Mumford’s lighting design. Yet instead of really showing daylight, the unnatural swimming pool blue that floods through from the start reminds the viewer of the sea. This little glass box, this family home, is only one crack away from letting all the ocean come crashing in. The family members continuously operate right on the edge of drowning.
The complete isolation of the home from any other place on earth, its seeming status as a remote box bobbing down at the bottom of the ocean, captures perfectly the unique conditions that make family homes their own time-warp entities. As soon as the family walk into it, no matter how much time has passed and who is now a grown-up, old roles are resumed with a tired inevitability. It is like the air surrounding a dinner table can drug those sitting at it into falling into patterns of behaviour never shown elsewhere. O’Neill’s Tyrones are as a family like a bag of glass shards that keep chipping more pieces off each other as they clatter hopelessly together. But they are all made of the same glass and if there was a hole pierced in the bag, then the fall to the floor would make them turn to dust.
Despite there being much preliminary talk of this show being about Jeremy Iron’s return to the Bristol Old Vic to mark its 250 anniversary and his training there, this is untouchably Lesley Manville’s show. In the various whites through to silvery greys of Irene Bohan’s costume design, she is literally illuminated against the deep blue lighting and the vertiginous varnished walls. Post-interval, her virginal convent whites are swapped for dove-grey and soft turquoise as she gradually mixes with the watery landscape like Millais’ Ophelia sliding all the way down.
Manville grounds a role that requires almost unremitting hysteria, it feels like the actress always has control of this completely out-of-control character. Her screams are answered by the searching calls of sea birds outside, as though her despair resonates through the landscape. Repeatedly she is referred to as a ‘mad ghost’ and the tradition of tragic women that she fit into is openly stated by the self-aware characters quoting Shakespeare who, in a surreal moment of theatre and reality combining, actually name her crazed night time wanderings as ‘the mad scene’.
Enacted in a bubble and centred on just one family, O’Neill’s 1941 play (first performed in 1956) might seem contained in its meaning. Yet, the hypocrisy and short-sightedness that underpins both a society and a family unit in which drinking alcohol is a social ritual, but opiate consumption is utterly taboo despite being so frequently relied on medicinally with little care for the long-term consequences, is depressingly relevant to Britain in 2016. As a whole, Long Day’s Journey into Night is not flawless – accent problems and forgotten lines on press night suggest additional rehearsal time could have been beneficial – but its ability to recreate the stagnant and nauseating claustrophobia of a family digging its fingernails in as it slides off the cliff is compelling. After almost three hours of fraught hysteria, the final, almost-silent moments of stillness leave behind only the feeling that this is sad. Just so, so sad.
Long Day’s Journey into Night is on at the Bristol Old Vic until 23rd April 2016. Click here for tickets.