It’s Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece and perhaps the masterpiece of the American theatre. It’s ranked fifth on the National Theatre’s survey of the 20th century’s “most significant” plays. It’s the best play about the past’s ability to trap and control us. It’s “the saddest play ever” (per Richard Eyre). It raises the family theme to “mythic heights” (Pauline Kael). It has “the greatest last line that’s ever been written” (Harold Pinter).
Such comments suggest a monument: a play that we should all bow down before in reverence. But watching Long Day’s Journey Into Night in the theatre it’s surprising just how un-monumental it feels. Rather, this powerful and poignant play - wrenched painfully out of its author’s own family history, his memories of his morphine-addicted mother, his skinflint actor-father and his lush of a brother - seems to me to achieve its greatness through its concentrated intimacy, adding up to a compulsive portrait of familial conflict and familial love that, for all its specificity for O’Neill, stimulates very personal feelings of recognition in the viewer.
The play was last seen in London in 2000 in an extremely intense production by Robin Phillips that gave a subtle expressionist flourish - suggestive of ghostly reverie - to the proceedings. Anthony Page’s major new revival - which opened at Richmond Theatre last night and tours briefly before settling into the Apollo in April - doesn’t have a sense of atmosphere to match Phillips’s. Page - a director I always think of as a “stay-out-of-the-play’s-way”-type - takes a traditional, straightforward approach. Lez Brotherson’s wood-panelled set (nicely lit by Mark Henderson) is merely serviceable and Gareth Owen’s sound design is spare and unobtrusive.
The play has been trimmed, however: usually coming in at around 3 hours 30 minutes it’s down to a running time of under 3 hours here. There are no significant losses - and arguably some gains- to the cuts: a lot of tedious poetry-quoting has been ditched. But there’s certainly an oddity to the placing of the interval: a lengthy, 1 hour 45 minute first half (which clearly tested the endurance capacity of certain irritatingly fidgety audience members) is followed by an hour-long second half comprising Act 4.
There is, inevitably, some fine-tuning still to be done here, but the production casts its spell, primarily through the strength of the performances. Without sentimentalising, David Suchet makes his James Tyrone a more genial and sympathetic figure than most actors have managed: he’s touchingly sincere in his expressions of love for his wife and moving when reflecting upon his sense of wasted potential, or recalling the early poverty that’s at the root of Tyrone’s miserliness. Laurie Metcalf, last seen on the UK boards at the NT in 2001 in All My Sons (a.k.a my all-time favourite production), digs deeply into the guilt, anger and fear that have driven Mary back to morphine, writhing in anguish as painful memories surface, radiating maternal concern and then pointing the finger of blame with devastating ferocity. The performance lacks the lyricism and sheer vocal gorgeousness that Jessica Lange brought to the role in Phillips’s production, and Metcalf may need to find a stronger sense of becalmed serenity in Mary’s doped nostalgic reveries. But as it stands she contributes a twitchily intense and sometimes frankly disturbing turn.
And as the sons, adding their perspectives to their parents’ refrains of blame and complicity, affection and accusation, Trevor White as Jamie and Kyle Soller as Edmund are just right, with Soller (what a great actor he is!) especially moving and impressive as the consumptive aspiring poet: his delivery of Edmund’s florid late speech about his connection to the sea is particularly fine.
Despite the intensity of the key scenes, the ending feels strangely muted and anti-climactic here: Metcalf’s muttered, rapid recitation of Mary’s final aria is a daring choice of delivery but it doesn't resonate (there were complaints about inaudibility from some audience members) and might need to be rethought in future performances. Still, Page’s production is in fine shape already, and looks likely to only get stronger as time goes on. Good enough reason to sign up for an emotionally bruising but highly rewarding evening in the company of the tormented Tyrones.
The production runs at Richmond until March 3rd, tours to Milton Keynes (12-17 March) and Theatre Royal Glasgow (26-31 March) and moves into the Apollo from 2 April.