Eugene O’Neill’s 1941 masterpiece took a lot out of him, chronicling as it did the story of his own family: his morphine-addicted Mum, an alcoholic sibling and a tightfisted father filled with a sense of his own failure. Described by the writer as a “play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood”, it was so near-the-knuckle O’Neill insisted that it was not performed for at least 25 years after his death (an instruction his widow ignored). Mamma Mia this is not.
Gruelling as it is, director Richard Eyre has saved us at least some of the pain in this production, which transfers from the Bristol Old Vic where it opened nearly two years ago. He has trimmed this sprawling story down to a more manageable three-and-a-half hours; some renderings have been more like five. But it is still an ultimately rewarding experience, albeit probably one that will have you reaching for the whisky bottle afterwards.
The star of the evening is Oscar nominee Lesley Manville as “dope fiend” Mary, the materfamilias who cannot bear the summer house that her stingy husband rents every summer – depriving her (as she sees it) of a proper family home, roots and friends. That one son is an alcoholic and another is stricken with consumption sometimes feels like the least of her problems. Her dreadful loneliness seeps out of her every utterance in a powerful and mesmerising performance.
Jeremy Irons is James Tyrone, the father and has-been actor who cannot bear his wife’s relapse into morphine addiction, and who views the disintegration of the rest of his family with a mixture of clear-eyed despair one minute and dogged denial the next. O’Neill is alert to the shifting sands of his characters’ development in a story told over one night in their Connecticut seaside home. One minute we find him promising to pay whatever it takes for his son’s sanatorium, the next minute insisting that the cost be “within reason”.
What O’Neill also gets really right is the pointless discursive flows of relatives at war and the way a dysfunctional family can turn on each other, seeking to blame every party but themselves for their failings and the spiral of misery this creates.
Both the sons give excellent performances – Matthew Beard skilfully portrays young Edmund’s gangly unease with his world and his desperation to use literature as a retreat from it (this is of course O’Neill’s projection of himself). As the alcoholic older brother Jamie, Rory Keenan is adept at conveying his sodden despair and the occasional moments when he tries to reach for something better. At one point we find him dancing while drunk; at another, trying to encourage his brother’s literary endeavours while reassuring that he will always want to destroy whatever his sibling does. It’s raw, it’s real, it’s unflinching.
The staging is also cleverly thought through – the summer home is imagined as a glass box, even if the furnishings inside are of the period. This helps create a sense of the speed with which the enveloping fog can cloud this world – symbolic as much of the minds of its people as of the physical reality of this place at the end of the world, on a coast populated by rudderless lives.
This isn’t an easy night of theatre, but it’s a richly rewarding one.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is booking until April 7 at Wyndham’s Theatre, London