One of my self-inflicted shortcomings as a theatre fan is that I feel I don’t see enough plays. People often joke at my taste, because those plays I do enjoy most are quite dark and more character driven rather than action packed, and I’ve always had a love of weighty themes and never a fear of those things some might dismiss as too ‘wordy’. I’m fully aware of the fact I don’t support my local theatre enough, but often find it hard to find the kind of productions running here that excited me enough to choose to get a ticket to stay at home over meeting up with my friends in London and going to a show there. Beginning last month and with my final visit this past Saturday, I broke the habit of my theatregoing lifetime, and clocked up four visits to see Bristol Old Vic’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize winning, semi-autobiographical drama and the work widely renowned as his ‘magnum opus’: Long Day’s Journey into Night. You might ask why I wanted to leave off my blog until my final trip having gone that much, and my answer is simple: having had the opportunity to watch it in early previews while it was still finding its feet, and then watching it grow and develop over subsequent visits, I knew that I was going to be taking away different things; noticing different nuances to the performances and so on. Now, having had my final visit this past Saturday, I feel like I can remember details most clearly, and can talk more deeply about the impact it had on me.
The play follows a fateful summer’s day in the life of the Tyrone family: James, Mary and their sons James ‘Jamie’ Jr and Edmund, all living under the shadow of Mary’s drug addiction and the dysfunction it brings to their family unit. In Act II of the play, in response to her husband pleading with her to forget the past, Mary remarks: ‘Why? How can I? The past is the present, after all. It’s the future, too’ which I think is the moment that encapsulates the power of the play as a whole and why I have grown to love and be fascinated by it so: the Tyrone’s are caught up in a desperate, destructive cycle: they blame, conceal, resent, accuse, deny and berate and but amid all the bitterness, there are sincere, touching attempts at forgiveness, affection, encouragement and consolation, which I think is incredibly profound, honest and human; there are so many different and conflicting emotional dynamics at play in both the script and body language that it becomes an effort to concentrate with the whole body, lest you miss some of the finer nuances and in that is one of the most intense and emotionally draining experiences I’ve had at the theatre, but in the end, you just have to run with it. Because, by doing that: it becomes one of the most sublime, riveting and moving experiences I’ve ever had, bought to life by an incredible company and creative team. Under the watchful eye of director Sir Richard Eyre, what struck me is the sense of pace at which the action unfolds in contrast to the title, I found it fizzing with energy and tension that is consistently simmering away, ahead of the profound, shattering conclusion that packs an almighty punch.
Rob Howell’s set: shabby chic beach house parlour, shining mahogany walls running into glass and staircase, are the perfect playground for these tensions, it’s a space where all the characters are haunted by their own reflections, literally and metaphorically. Mary can’t bear the sight of her own eyes when Jamie, scared, bitter and resentful tries to get her to face her reflection because he can see she has relapsed, and in a tender moment between James and Edmund during a late night game of cards, the head of the family opens up about his biggest regret, the fact that his run of luck as an actor landed him the money maker, and thus he became typecast and unable to pursue those roles he loved any longer. He tells Edmund about his passion and affinity for Shakespeare, and steps away from his downtrodden faded matinee idol status, standing tall for a few glorious moments before real life and regret shrinks him back down once more into his chair, a tragic silhouette. The Tyrone’s seem like they are trapped between who they are and who they want to be, and this sense of claustrophobia is complimented beautifully by Peter Mumford’s atmospheric lighting, lots of different textures at play echoing the drama. John Leonard’s eerie soundscape: foghorn, church bells and seagulls, are never far from proceedings, punctuating some of the plays darkest and most desolate moments and fog presses in at the windowsills. The whole effect deliciously stifling, to me the Tyrone’s home almost becomes another character in itself.
Not least in terms of all the emotional dynamics at play, the piece is also relentless in terms of the dialogue, in sheer length and pace. Somebody is always talking, or fighting to be heard over others, and at times it’s so frantic and dizzying it feels like they have to keep talking lest they just plunge into new depths of misery, Jamie & Edmund throw Swinburne, Kipling, Wilde, Rossetti, Baudelaire, and Neitzsche references around like no tomorrow. As such, I found it exhausting just watching and listening and I was in the audience, this incredible company will always have my utmost awe and respect for the commitment, depth and intensity they gave to their performances, in the face of a 3 and half hour behemoth like this play is.
Jeremy Irons heads the cast as James Tyrone, and nothing gave me more joy than to see his portrayal grow in strength and intensity each time I visited. My first, a preview performance, I noticed that he wasn’t always in complete control of his lines, or his accent, but that didn’t matter; he still brought an entrancing, effortless charm to the character that commanded my attention. Over my subsequent trips, he became ever more sure of himself and the direction he wanted to take James in, and that unmistakable voice of his could colour his speeches with so many different layers of meaning just by a slight shift in tone or volume, it’s almost hypnotic. There are two particular images I will always carry with me from his performance: the first is during an exchange with Mary, where she admits to him she has tried to stop, he says to her: ‘I suppose you did, Mary. But for the love of God, why couldn’t you find the strength to keep on?’ He often said this latter line through gritted teeth, like he was trying not to break down in tears; and the fact he was holding her hand made it all the more heartbreaking. It’s clear James adores his wife, and he is desperately, hopelessly trying to reach out to her, but he can’t, and he knows it, so when Mary insists she doesn’t know what James means, he simply replies, with a resigned passion : ‘Never mind. It’s no use now’. I had to bite my lip and wipe a tear from my eye, more than once. But nowhere is James’ sense of hopelessness more apparent than in the finale, where Jeremy proves a look can be electrifying. Around midnight, Mary comes down the stairs, but is completely beyond her family’s reach, in a haze of morphine and past dreams. She sits down, and the men in her life are powerless to do anything look on in silence. In that instance, watching Jeremy gave me chills, his expression was so intense and forlorn, it was like watching all the fire and passion James shows burn out, slowly and painfully.
Lesley Manville is a revelation as Mary Tyrone, devoted mother and morphine addict. Her mannerisms make you uneasy and aware that something is plaguing her from the outset. Constantly restless, she’s always playing with her hands, clutching her neck and so on, and switches from denial to defiance and every emotion in between so ferociously and fast it makes your head spin. She and Jeremy have intense chemistry, and given that James and Mary’s whole relationship is built on this foundation of passion, irony and rage, it’s wonderful to watch.
In what is, quite possibly, my favourite performance of his to date, Hadley Fraser shines as Jamie. In a drunken haze as the evening draws to a close, Jamie stumbles home and tells his younger brother that he’s always been resentful of him, as he was ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Pet.’ It seems like love and hate are indeed really close, however, as in the very same scene he tells Edmund that he loves him, and ‘greater love hath no man than this, that he saveth his brother from himself’. Like the rest of his family, Jamie has his demons and is a mess of contradictions. In that though, he’s insightful and honest, perhaps moreso than any other character, and that’s why I like him so much. He’s only what life has made him: arrogant, cynical, bitter and broken, and seems like he’s made peace with that; a refreshing change to everyone around him, who are afraid to say what they mean, or mean what they say. As a longtime fan of Hadley, I love seeing him get his teeth into a role like this where he gets to show so many different sides; I get swept along by the endearing charm and presence he brings to everything, and, particularly here, marvel at ease with which he makes another utterly convincing drunk by turns loveable, funny and infinitely tragic in the space of a few sentences.
Hadley’s Jamie is complimented beautifully by Billy Howle’s Edmund. Billy is a new face for me, and one I hope I have the chance to see again. He has great presence and sincerity, and brought a warmth and humour to the youngest Tyrone that captivated me. Watching him hold his own in scenes with Jeremy and Lesley was really something, and I feel sure he is destined for great things.
A special mention must go to Jessica Regan, who in her (albeit few and far between) appearances as the summer maid Cathleen, had me grinning from ear to ear and laughing out loud; like with Billy I hope to see more of her in future.
I confess, I didn’t know the play when I booked it; it was a long awaited chance to see my favourite performer on home turf, instead of me travelling to see him for once. Not to mention him being in the company of a leading man whose other work I admire very much, who I thought I’d never get the chance to see live. What I’ve found yet again though, is that I came away with the script in hand, and a new favourite piece that I enjoyed for so many other reasons as well as a favourite of mine being involved. I’m incredibly thankful and honoured to have seen it.