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Long Day's Journey Into Night, Bristol Old Vic | reviews, news & interviews

Long Day's Journey Into Night, Bristol Old Vic

Long Day's Journey Into Night, Bristol Old Vic

Lesley Manville shines in O'Neill's dark modern classic

James Tyrone (Jeremy Irons) and his wife Mary (Lesley Manville)Hugo Glendinning

Lesley Manville’s performance as Mary, the tortured morphine addict, wife and mother in Eugene O’Neill’s dark masterpiece Long Day’s Journey Into Night, directed by Richard Eyre, is breathtaking, from the moment she first steps on stage until her last sombre soliloquy.

The role of a woman prone to hysteria and self-deception invites over-acting, not least when the author has given her torrents of dope-driven lines, as well as placed her in desperately solipsistic isolation. But Manville manages to play the excess of a woman who is hanging onto life through a kind of pretense, without falling into the trap of allowing her undeniable craft as an actress to obscure content and authentic emotion.

For one of the things that distinguishes this anatomy of a cyclically exploding nuclear family, is the authenticity that O’Neill brought to the story. Every bit of the narrative, and the characters trapped within it, is drawn from the writer’s own life. No wonder that he forbade the play to be performed until 25 years after his death. Rarely has an author exposed so much of the pain and suffering of his own family life which such relentless savagery.

This is a play that offers neither redemption nor the dark thrill of a dramatic climax 

The long day under ruthless scrutiny finds Mary, recently returned from a morphine detox, inexorably drawn back into the drug’s seductive stranglehold. Edmund, her youngest and favourite son, waits for a TB diagnosis, which she blindly refuses to accept. Her husband James Tyrone and the older son Jamie, who has followed in his father’s footsteps and taken to the stage, wrestle for power. As the day and evening unfold, layers of the family’s individual psyches are bared as they clash in a series of all-too-predictable battles. Richard Eyre’s production, effective in its apparent simplicity, sets the action within the claustrophobia of a domestic hell that is nevertheless connected through translucent walls to an outside world that offers both threat and refuge.

The refuge all the characters seek is provided by those familiar little helpers, whisky and morphine: handy escapes from present pain as well as past suffering. As with so many families, the discourse at any given point in time slides into repetitive wound-scratching, morbidly self-inflicted as well as aggressively imposed on others. What this production does so well is capture the see-sawing between vicious attack and contradictory expressions of love.

Although she is undoubtedly the star of the production, Lesley Manville (pictured right) never eclipses the other actors. This is to her credit but also to the director’s. Jeremy Irons handles Tyrone Snr’s disintegration from paternalistic posing to tragic drunk with great subtlety – here too the temptation to overdo things must be strong, but he is too sensitive and intelligent an actor to give into it. Hadley Fraser captures the still-adolescent bluster of Jamie very well and handles its whisky-soused excess with great force. There is nothing unusual about a family in which parents unconsciously maintain their children in a state of rebellious adolescence, but with the Tyrones, the frozen quality of dyads in which conflict is kept alive through confrontation and taken to an extreme, is tempered by sudden waves of clutching affection.

The sober quality of the production allows the play’s inherent strengths to come through with great clarity: not least the musical qualities of the text, nourished by leitmotivs and repetitions, the shared memories that keep the family together, whether remembered hurt or moments of joy. Although Mary toys at one moment with the swift and final exit that she could effect through taking an overdose, the suicide in this play is collective, and Eyre’s pacing communicates this tragic and yet fog-bound unfolding of shared pain with a sensitivity that makes it all the more touching, and most of all deeply uncomfortable. This is a play that offers neither redemption nor the dark thrill of a dramatic climax. Life goes on, as it so often does: this is a production that expresses admirably well the everyday realities of family life.

What this production does so well is capture the see-sawing between vicious attack and contradictory expressions of love


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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