The TheatreguideLondon Review
Long Day's Journey Into Night
Apollo Theatre Spring-Summer 2012
Long Day's Journey is the American drama's Hamlet or King Lear, the monumental tragedy. And as with Hamlet and Lear, we can't expect any one production to capture all its depths, only hope that it will give some sense of the play's power and perhaps illuminate some bit or aspect we haven't seen before.
Anthony Page's production is uneven and imperfect, but it has one towering performance at its centre, and it hints at what could be there around that core, and so it is well worth seeing.
Eugene O'Neill's drama, largely autobiographical, is (like most American drama) about a family in crisis. Mother became addicted to morphine some years ago, but has been clean for a while. On this particular day a combination of events leads her to relapse, and her husband and two sons, who each have guilts and problems of their own, mix grief with mutual recriminations and retreat into alcoholic oblivion.
What raises this above soap opera is O'Neill's convincing depiction of overpowering pain and his determination to find some grain of comfort to offer us, if not his characters. He guides us to understand that these four people all deeply love each other (even if that is ironically what enables them to hurt each other so deeply), and that they are all largely the products of their own pasts which, if they have not exactly programmed them, have limited their repertoire of possible responses to any situation – a recurring trope in the dialogue is 'None of us can help the things life has done to us'.
When one character asks 'Can't we forget the past?' another answers 'No. But we can forgive.'
At the play's centre, at least this time around, is the father, an actor whose financial success never overcame the traumas of childhood poverty, so that with the best will in the world he cannot help penny-pinching, even at the cost of his loved ones' health and lives.
David Suchet captures all the complexities of the man who adores his wife but sent her to the cheap doctor who got her hooked, whose hopes for his elder son take the form of bitter denunciation of his failure to live up to those hopes, and whose dependence on alcohol is both an irresponsible evasion and the understandable response to unbearable unhappiness.
In what is arguably the greatest two or three pages ever written by an American playwright, O'Neill allows the man to remember his youthful talent and ambition, realise that he gave it all up for easy money, recognise the full extent of that error and, in a heartbreaking refutation of Freud, not be liberated by the self-discovery but go on as trapped by his programming as before.
David Suchet carries that scene with absolute authority, stripping the man naked and taking us into the depth of his tragedy. It's ten minutes of drama you will not see the like of on any other stage in London, and it's only the most intense ten minutes of a brilliant and sustained performance.
If only everyone else in the cast could match Suchet, we might have something close to the ideal production I said at the start was impossible.
Laurie Metcalf is the biggest disappointment. Though Metcalf has spent most of her career in American TV sitcoms, she is a strong and intelligent actress, so I must assume that she and director Page chose to fight any impulse to draw sympathy for the woman slipping back into addiction. Only occasionally, as in a scene with her maid, does Metcalf let us glimpse the lure of oblivion to this woman who (partly by her own fault) has little to keep her here, and her final scene is played too prosaically to evoke the ghost-like separation from reality that O'Neill wanted, not at all unsympathetically, to convey.
Trevor White as the elder son takes too long to show us the excoriating self-hatred that underlies his cynical veneer, though Kyle Soller is a little more successful in finding layers of poetic sensibility and adolescent self-pity in the younger son.
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