The bad news: Long Day’s Journey Into Night, directed by Anthony Page, is a grindingly depressing affair. The good news: I have now identified a genre of theatre that I simply do no enjoy or even ‘get’ – the ‘draining misery fest’. This is slightly problematic, since this genre surges up an awful lot on the London theatre scene. This is why I did not enjoy David Elridge’s much lauded, A Knot of The Heart and why I all but swallowed my own fist, during Mike Leigh’s, Grief. It is why I find myself unable to praise supposed classics, which other critics ‘appreciate’ in a way that I cannot.
Many reviews of this show have included the slippy caveat: ‘This is not an easy viewing experience’. This phrase is often slipped in as an afterthought, following a careful exploration of all the cerebral pleasures, to be mined from said misery fest. And yet, what this phrase really means is: most of the audience will not enjoy this. For someone who spends a lot of time extolling the virtues of theatre to the disillusioned masses (!), I find this supposed side point hard to stomach. Why do we disregard the audience’s experience so readily? Isn’t this what criticism is about: letting the audience know what type of play they will encounter and whether or not they will enjoy it?
Listen, I’m not saying that all theatre has to be strictly enjoyable. There’s no denying that misery is one of theatre’s main life-sources. After all, most tragedies include bloody miserable souls, dragging their sorry forms across the stage. But most tragedies, despite their pathetic protagonists, are still incredibly energising affairs. Hamlet, in spite of all that agonising indecision, almost always leaves me with gleaming eyes and a racing heart. But O’Neill’s deeply autobiographical play left me feeling dead inside and deeply frustrated. Perhaps I’m just a strange anomaly – but this is not how I want to feel when I leave the theatre.
The trouble is, there’s so little life force here. The main character is a morphine addicted mother – Mary - who, on the night in question, slides back into her addiction. I have no doubt that Laurie Metcalf is a supremely talented actress. The spontaneity she finds in her faltering speech is quite extraordinary; the worlds simply fall out of her mouth. She is, simultaneously, an actress in consummate control and a lady who has chucked away all her anchors and is floating, completely adrift, amongst those she loves, the supposed ballast in her life.
And yet, whenever Metcalf opened her mouth – those meandering mutterings trickling from somewhere strange inside her – I wanted her to shut it again, immediately. I wanted her her to stop talking. Surely this is not the ideal reaction, to the main protagonist in a classic tragedy? No doubt many readers will tumble in triumphantly, claiming that this frustrated reaction is simply a sign of O’Neill’s supreme talent; he is making you feel what the family feel, too! How delightful and deeply dramatic: you have become one of the characters on stage! But such a justification does not cut it for me. The characters on stage are not, after all, paying to watch this sloping descent into despair. (OK, neither did I, but you get the point: why on earth would any paying customer want to feel like this? How is this a useful by-product of a theatrical production? Does such a fierce drawing back really suck us into the play – or force us to hover, with hostility, on the surface?’)
I haven’t felt like this with all of Eugene O’Neill’s plays. I was absolutely exhilarated by Kevin Spacey’s bludgeoning turn in Moon for Misforgotten – perhaps it’s because drunks are so much more engaging than druggies. They might be lost but they’ve still got fire in their souls and they are still fighting for their own version of reality. The second half of Long Day’s Journey Into Night sees the mother safely lodged upstairs, with her family drinking (heavily) and cowering, down below. It’s interesting that, for me, the morphine-mother has much more impact when off-stage. Those ambiguous stomps (what on Earth is the dazed lass up to now?) - and the subsequent flinches on the families’ faces – are so much more painful to witness, than any of the cloudy speeches of the first half.
The dialogue, too, is much more engaging and varied. Freed from the crushing presence of his wife, James Tyrone (David Suchet) begins to share some truths with his youngest son, Edmund (Kyle Soller). The house is a murky web of half lives, whenever the wife is around but, with her absence, it’s as if that obscuring dust is finally lifted. We hear about James Tyrone’s impoverished past, his compromised acting career and his struggle to prevent his early poverty from bleeding over into his present day, prosperity.
Suchet is an exceptionally sophisticated actor and he never offers a single interpretation, when two or three are possible. His James Tyrone is a fighter, grafting out the type of affluent(ish) life for his family, that he never had. But he is a victim, too, trapped by his own bloody-minded hunt for money. He is a tyrant and he a liar. But he is also sympathetic to his son’s pains, desperately devoted to his wife and often – despite his propensity to perform – heart-breakingly open with his ‘hidden’ emotions. These open-wound emotions slip out in the most subtle but arresting ways. When his wife tells him; ‘I must leave you now…for supper’ the flinch on Suchet’s face speaks of years of dread; the deeply embedded fear that his wife will, once again, abandon the comfort of her husband’s company, for the easy solace that morphine provides.
But the wife’s final entrance is, for me, the nail in this production’s coffin. On her entry, older brother, James (Trevor White), quips: ‘The mad scene. Enter Ophelia’. It’s hard enough to take Mary seriously as it is, with her hideously over the top white wig hanging limply at her shoulders – and this knowing line completely smothers any potential pathos. It is, as the critics are fond of saying, very ‘hard’ viewing indeed. And, when she opens her mouth for one final, glazed lament, the only consolation is that – with all those blazing signposts so helpfully provided by O’Neill – we know it is bound to be her last.