The Theatreguide.London Review
Day's Journey Into Night
Wyndham's Theatre Winter-Spring 2018
Eugene O'Neill's monster is THE great American play, a real challenge to King Lear in its unrelenting study in misery that still, by giving the audience more insights than are allowed its unhappy characters, offers some basis for understanding, forgiveness and even hope.
It is long, slow-moving and sometimes repetitive in circling around its subject (criticisms that might also be made of King Lear), but it richly rewards those who last it out.
We are in a family based closely on the one O'Neill grew up in.
Father is an immensely successful actor so traumatised by a childhood of poverty he still pinches every penny. As a result of a doctor's irresponsible prescription after a difficult childbirth Mother is addicted to morphine and leads a life of recovery and relapse.
Elder son, acutely aware of the ways he has disappointed his parents, is a self-hating self-destructive wastrel. And younger son, alternately babied and rejected by his mother, is a self-pitying self-dramatising would-be poet.
On this particular long day, mother relapses, it is confirmed that younger son (almost as if to live out the cliche of his self-image) has tuberculosis, and all three men take refuge in their shared alcoholism.
And yet. And yet, even though almost every interaction, in every permutation, leaves everyone even unhappier than they were before, O'Neill shows us two things some of them go so far as to say out loud but never really understand as we do.
One is that everyone in this family deeply and overpoweringly loves everyone else, and it is just one of those horrible ironies of life that love can wound even more deeply than it can heal.
All three men, for example, are so delighted at mother's health at the start of the play that they can't take their loving eyes off her, which is exactly enough to convince her they're spying on her and drive her to a relapse.
O'Neill's other insight is that we are the products of our pasts and (to use language he wouldn't know) are largely programmed into behaviours we can't control. A recurring trope of the play is variants on 'Don't blame him. He can't help being that way'.
And in an extraordinary final scene – surely the greatest hour of drama ever written by an American – each of the four is allowed a moment of insight into why they are how they are. And then, as if to thumb his nose at Freud, O'Neill shows us that breakthrough being of absolutely no use in changing them.
Deep in his cups father tells of how the lure of superstardom made him give up a Shakespearean career and waste his talents. And then, at the very moment that he looks the demon in the eye – 'What was it I wanted to buy that was worth. . . ?' – he is turning out lamps to save a few pennies.
Richard Eyre's production manages to overcome a couple of potentially crippling external flaws. Despite credit to a dialect coach, no two characters have the same accent or speaking style. This is possibly realistic, given the mix of generations and backgrounds, but no one seems right for the time and place.
And in place of the solid, slightly shabby New England home O'Neill called for – his stage directions even list the books in the bookcases – designer Rob Howell gives us what looks like a modern glass-walled open-plan office.
Apart from the total absence of reality and atmosphere, all that glass means the actors are constantly reflected in the walls, giving the uneasy and distracting impression of other people skulking in the wings.
Former Shakespearean who chose the path of lucrative stardom Jeremy Irons never even suggests that the character he's playing is a former Shakespearean who chose the path of lucrative stardom.
There are no hints of theatrical mannerisms spilling over into ordinary life, or delight in the sound of his own voice. The man is bitter and warped by his childhood and deeply unhappy – we get all that – but he could be an old farmer or businessman or accountant.
Irons does do full justice to his great last-act aria of fruitless self-discovery, unquestionably the dramatic high point of the evening.
Lesley Manville makes the mistake too many actresses in the mother's role do, of starting on too high a level of near-hysteria so that she has no place to go from there. Only briefly in the twilight scene with the housemaid does the actress capture the drifting away from reality of the addict.
Rory Keenan also makes the most of his last-act scene, the older son discovering that what has been a mask of cynical nastiness is real and directed most fully at himself. And Matthew Beard, more an observer of the others than an active participant in the younger brother role based on O'Neill himself, captures the sharp and sensitive intelligence watching, taking notes, and trying to make sense of it all.
One of the most striking things to come out of the posthumous study of O'Neill's papers is that he set out to write an angry play about how his evil mother destroyed the family, and that only in the process of looking at them did he discover (to probably slightly misquote his dedication to the play) his 'pity and understanding and forgiveness for all four'.
Long Day's Journey demands a lot of an audience. But even in an imperfect production like this it makes your patience, stamina and attention worthwhile.
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