No one said theatre is always easy – but perhaps we, the ‘insiders’, don’t say it enough. Theatre isn’t always easy. Long Day’s Journey into Night isn’t always easy. It is a sad, squeezing grip of a play, set over one particularly miserable day for one particularly miserable family. It’s also incredibly long (3.5 hours and counting), perhaps a little indulgently so. But the flickers of joy and meaning in Eugene O’Neill’s deeply personal play (which shares many parallels with his own life) – and the fact that love still glows in the ashes of this burnt up family – are quite something. They gleam: lighthouses of hope for the soul, all our souls, lost at sea.
We’re in a summerhouse in Connecticut – a temporary home for the Tyrone family that has, over the years, come to feel more like a prison. Here is the home where Mary Tyrone grew addicted to morphine, following the painful birth of her son Edmund – and where she never quite re-learned how to live inside her life again, rather than out on the edges, with one eye on the exit. Here is the home where Mary’s husband, ‘matinee idol’ James Tyrone, gave up his dreams of becoming an artist and settled with merely becoming an actor. Here is the home where sons Edmund and James grew a little too fond of alcohol and increasingly less fond of their parents. Here is the home that only ever really felt like a house.
Director Richard Eyre and designer Rob Howell have created a modern-feeling and abstract set, that initially seems to go against the grain of O’Neill’s precise stage directions but ultimately proves to be directly wired to the heart of his play. The interior is relatively traditional but the walls and ceilings of the summer-house are made of glass: a see-through cage, which traps the Tyrones inside a series of endlessly repeating reflections. The glass is streaked with bold lines that shoot off into hidden rooms and lend the stage a looming sense of perspective. As the Tyrones try, unsuccessfully, to escape their past and to break free of entrenched patterns of behaviour, those lines – burned into the walls of their home – seem to mock them. They are the lines that visually connect this family with a past they cannot hope to outrun and that is, of course, an integral part of their present (‘The past is the present, It’s the future too.’).
The lines that streak the walls and ceiling remind us that that is a play about sight and vision, and the things we choose to see (and ignore) in the people we love. Richard Eyre has coaxed an incredibly complex web of criss-crossing lines of sight between his actors. In the opening scenes, when Mary Tyrone is not yet in thrall to the morphine, all lines of sight lead to this wife and mother. Husband and sons circle Mary, magnetically drawn to her and terrified she might drift away for good (lost in the haze of addiction), should they let her out of their sight.
The heart-ache of this production is to watch Mary slowly extract herself from the centre of family life. The first time Mary takes morphine (at least that we know of), it takes her a long time to extricate herself from her family and escape to the medicine cabinet upstairs. But after that first and difficult wrench, Mary quickly becomes a stranger in her home. All the looks that now pass between this family occur between James and his two sons. They are looks of frustration and despair and they are looks that go over, around and straight through an increasingly ghostly Mary Tyrone.
Long Day’s Journey into Night is often pitched as a star-vehicle for the actors that play husband and wife, but Eyre’s production feels different. This is Edmund and James Jr’s play. Lesley Manville and Jeremy Irons are both excellent but their characters are too far gone, too entrenched in the lies they have chosen to live by, to really connect with as the audience. Manville captivates and appals. She is a moth to a flame, constantly flittering about her family – weirdly hungry for first their love and, later, their despair.
As the morphine takes hold, Mary’s performance gets bolder and stranger. It is as if Manville loosens the strings: Mary’s voice grows breathier and more dramatic and her gestures more expansive, in an increasingly deluded attempt to cover up her addiction. The same goes for Jeremy Irons’ James, who gets more and more performative and pronounced as the night wears on. His vowels become increasingly pronounced, his jollity more forced, and his self-lies more convincing, as James gears up, once again, for a life of pretence.
But the sons – the young, poetic and ailing Edmund and the robust, thespy and alcohol-addled James – are not yet lost to us, or to themselves. They are still trying hard not to pretend; they are still trying hard not to paper over the cracks of their lives, no matter how awful the gaping hole below might seem. Edmund in particular – played with unbelievable lyrical grace by Matthew Beard – offers the possibility of escape and a life lived differently. Here is a man who, despite his weak disposition, has travelled out to sea in an attempt to find his own way. It’s a voyage partly propelled by a sad attraction to death but there is hope in Edmund’s escapades too. Whenever Beard recites poetry (he is a character who lives for poetry), his voice takes on a different, lighter, higher tone. He is lifted right out of the present and – particularly in an exquisite monologue about a moment of meaning found on the ocean – Edmund lifts us right out with him.
Edmund’s older brother James chooses a different escape route: alcohol. But there is something holding James back, something that stops him from removing himself completely from real life in the manner of his mother. In an extraordinary penultimate scene, James storms back home, roaring drunk, to warn his brother to stay away from him and his supposed love. Rory Keenan plays a blinder in a scene in which he is absolutely half-brutal drunk, half-devoted brother. His body jolts and swoops across the stage, totally at sea. But there is something that stops James losing his balance. His body lurches instinctively (partly from hate, partly from love) towards his brother: his anchor in the storm.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is on until 7 April 2018 at Wyndham’s Theatre. Click here for more details.