‘‘Health and happiness ’ and then, perfectly, ‘that’s a joke’.’
By now Long Day’s Journey into Night has a lot of followers. Written in 1941 this is Eugene O’Neill’s Facebook page from hell – and back – and without any privacy settings. Received by the New York Times in 1956 as a ‘saga of the damned …. like a Dostoevsky novel in which Strindberg had written the narrative’ it is a remarkable and important play. Watch it (occasionally not easy), follow its story (not difficult) and you’ll realise, in epic Facebook terms, its ‘social utility’ for our time.
You will like the kind and sympathetic realization of character in this Lyceum production. Diana Kent, who plays Mary Tyrone, says “There’s no baddie in the play. Everybody is flawed, everybody damages everybody else, but there’s a reason for it, and everybody can be forgiven. It’s a hugely compassionate play” (HeraldScotland, 5 January). For director Tony Cownie it’s ‘a very personal family situation [turned] into a very meaningful intense drama’ (Lyceum programme). Guilt and retribution – the acid feed of some productions – come a discordant second to underscored themes of conflicted love and understanding. A word here for the dialect coaching of Lynn Bains, for the accents are never strained, however keenly pitched. Cue also sorrowful cello, piano, and a quiet sea – off-stage right – rather than screaming strings and raucous gulls.
Paul Shelley is James Tyrone, handsomely retired actor, who at sixty-five would still command the stage or living room with debonair gesture and manner. Seduced by $35000 a year net profit at the box office he gave up on Othello and Shakespeare for the lead in melodramas. He shows off his cigars but does not smoke them and the theatrical metaphor is never far away. ‘The final curtain will be in the poor house’ he declaims but whilst he can guard his whiskey (he’s an Irish American remember) and wryly attack the fecklessness of his sons he is again losing his wife to her morphine habit. Shelley shows the pronounced make-up of a man whose dignity and loyalties are keeping him together but are wearing him out at the same time.
Tyrone often holds his wife of thirty-six years but Mary is not really there. He might as well embrace the air for Diana Kent plays Mary as a woman in love with a happy, momentary, past. Her speech is limpid clear and sounds as lonely as she feels. Even when animated and with their vivacious young housekeeper, Cathleen (Nicola Roy), Mary is receding. Her addiction will reclaim her, is reaching her all the while, as inescapable and as all-enveloping as the sea fog that O’Neill would fold her in. A muted foghorn signals the same. Kent’s performance is one to admire and to think about.
The two Tyrone ‘boys’, James Jnr (33) and Edmund (23), do love their parents and it is naturally selfless, unlike what came next in O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (1947). Adam Best as James Jnr. and Timothy Evers as Edmund are very well matched. Their open exchanges provide a sure solidity and warmth that shore up the fragile state of their parents’ relationship. Granted they do drink a lot of whiskey but that allows Edmund, of all people, to propose ‘Health and happiness’ and then, perfectly, ‘that’s a joke’.
However, as is the case here, cut over an hour from O’Neill’s script and put too much distance between the Tyrones and the play’s autobiographical anguish, then you might, cheekily, unfairly, plot this Journey to a few miles out of Elie or maybe Troon. The Tyrone’s car might be a Lexus (actually it’s a Packard) but it looks cheap compared to their neighbour’s S class Mercedes. James Tyrone routinely buys to let and is cash poor; he worries about his electricity bill. He expects his sons to make money. He’s meanly content with the state hospital rather than pay out for private healthcare. Mary wants a proper upholstered home, preferably in the city. The men change into dapper suits to go to town. The full-on wooden wall of the ‘cottage’ interior looks like the neat cladding of apartments in Edinburgh’s Quartermile. There is, I think, a bourgeois milieu here that is pretty comfortable and spacious, some way off O’Neill’s cabined and pathological closeness, and that has to limit the tragedy of a family on the rocks.
Is it helpful to salvage significant pity and modest understanding from the fuller, near mythical qualities of this great American drama? Yes. This is a good, clear-sighted, production of Long Day’s Journey into Night that stops well short of the gloaming.
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 21 January)
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