Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical masterwork, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which won the Nobel laureate a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1957, makes a British homecoming with this revival at the Royal Lyceum. It was in this playhouse, during the Edinburgh International Festival of 1958, that the drama had its UK premiere, with a production which starred a young Alan Bates as the consumptive Edmund Tyrone.
The premiere received variable notices, but Tony Cownie’s intelligent, smartly calibrated new production for the Lyceum company deserves an altogether more enthusiastic reception. From the very outset, as we see O’Neill’s barely fictionalised family, the Tyrones, rising from their breakfast, one senses a germ of tension which will, over the next two hours and fifty minutes, grow steadily and irresistibly to fill the auditorium.
This agonising portrayal of one day in the brutally dysfunctional life of O’Neill’s family is, famously, a play for six characters, namely: former matinee idol James Tyrone; his wife Mary (who is addicted to the morphine she was recklessly prescribed during childbirth); their sons Jamie (who stands in for the writer himself) and Edmund; their bold, Irish housekeeper Cathleen; and the ubiquitous sixth character, alcohol, which holds all three men in its thrall.
Any staging of this play faces the twin dangers of a descent into stagnant lugubriousness or a defiant acceleration into melodrama. Cownie’s production is astute enough to avoid both. His universally excellent cast makes the most of the slowly diminishing quantity of air the director affords them. Their gradual moral asphyxiation on this ever-shifting emotional battlefield – in which guilt, deep resentment, self-loathing, love and forgiveness vie for supremacy – is almost too painful to watch.
So fine are the performances that it is almost invidious to single any one out. However, Diana Kent’s playing of Mary, nervously fragile, falling visibly into the lonely parallel world of her addiction, is especially moving.
Designer Janet Bird disregards the naturalistic prescriptions of O’Neill’s stage directions. Instead she has created a disappointed, barely maintained interior for the Tyrones’ Connecticut summer house, hemmed atmospherically by a dishevelled, dirty grey curtain, which looms like an illuminated ghost between scenes. It’s a thoughtful design which is in keeping with a clever, emotive production which takes due care with both the bleak wit and the resistant humanism of O’Neill’s great play.
At Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh until February 8. lyceum.org.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on January 22, 2014
© Mark Brown