Monthly Archives: February 2018

Charles I: King and Collector – Royal Academy

Charles I and Henrietta Maria Holding a Laurel Wreath (Frick Collection)

One of the many ways we can shape our history is to see it as a continual battle between democracy and kingship in all its forms, that has played out across the centuries. The Bridge Theatre’s brilliant revival of Julius Caesar is a reminder that these debates have raged for millennia and Nicholas Hytner’s fascinating production shows us the bloody consequences of one of the earliest clashes between state and individual ruler. And while today a low rumbling of republican sentiment remains, it somehow remains exactly that, low – our modern benign monarchy being inoffensive enough to suppress any serious attempts to tear it down.

One of the major reasons for this is because it all happened once before, the multitudinous consequences of which are still felt today. The execution of Charles I in January 1649 is one of the most momentous events in British history; never before or since had an English reigning monarch been tried and executed by their own people, although plenty had been deposed by court factions and invading claimants to the throne or mysteriously ‘disappeared’. Now, more than 450 years later it’s difficult to understand the wide-ranging effect Charles’s execution had – a monarch who he and most others believed was divinely appointed by, and only answerable to, God. As the Royal Academy’s brilliant new exhibition demonstrates that crucial axe blow had one little-known consequence, it created the modern art market.

Forget elaborate heists and the occasional desecration, arguably the republican fire-sale that followed Charles’s death is one of the greatest art crimes in history. It broke-up probably the finest collection of early-modern and renaissance art of the era, selling much of it cheaply to the highest bidder. It was a brash, barbarous and unforgiving act that stripped the Royal Collection and meant that some of today’s most valuable paintings were quickly snapped-up by the courts of Europe or private collectors. Through painstaking research and lots of diplomacy, the Royal Academy has reunited much of this work for the first time in over four centuries in its big spring show Charles I: King and Collector.

As you enter the first gallery to be stared at by some of the leading artists and creatives of the day, including Charles himself, there is an overwhelming sense of the significance of what you’re about to see. The RA, of course, has produced some of the most remarkable shows of the last 10 years including David Hockney: A Bigger Picture in 2012 and Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse in 2016. But there is an extra magic in this new exhibition which continually presses upon you; it is a rare and probably never to be repeated chance to see a collection of paintings, bronzes, busts, drawings and miniatures that no one has seen together for at least 450 years, or, given the distribution of the artefacts around the various royal palaces in the seventeenth-century, has never been seen in one suite of rooms by anyone before, not even Charles himself.

As you gaze at the stunning three-sided portrait of him by Anthony van Dyck painted in 1635-36, which dominates the first room, you see a man with many aspects to his character; not only a terrible political decision-maker and failed King, but a devoted family man whose wife and children appear repeatedly in the works on show, as well as a second son who was never meant to rule at all, a keenly religious sovereign, and a man with cultivated and judicious artistic sensitivities. All of this complexity is reflected in the rooms that follow, the shear amount of work on display demonstrating not only a quite pronounced taste in the art Charles acquired – or at the very least the sense to listen to advisers on what to buy – but an understanding of both traditional and emerging forms of artistic expression, purchasing classic pieces from the previous century, as well as supporting emerging talent in the newly commissioned artists within his own court.

And this is where it all begins, with the ream of famous names that created work for Charles in one of the greatest periods of artistic patronage. Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck are just two of the famous names to have worked for Charles, ensuring their place in art history by significantly changing the nature of expression and the psychological representation of their subjects as they did it.  As well as self-portraits of both men, the first gallery also sets out the key players including Charles’s friend the Duke of Buckingham captured as a mythological hero on horseback by Rubens in 1625, the year of the young King’s accession, and his Queen Henrietta Maria, depicted by van Dyck in one of his finest works in 1633 (Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson), who sought exile in France with her children in the midst of the Civil War, but herself amassed a fine collection of work showcased later in the exhibition.

A Witch Riding a Goat Backwards (Adam Elsheimer)As you wander round, as well as the images and stories shown in the painting, their own future life is detailed in the explanatory signs, with every plaque giving a clear indication of where the painting ended up – ranging from gallery collections in Europe such as the Louvre to America’s National Gallery of Art in Washington and Frick Collection in New York. Most fascinating is the price paid for it during the bargain sale of the early 1650s which in essence created the art market today, adding what is essentially arbitrary value to each piece, taking what anyone would pay for it. While one of Titian’s masterpieces went for £800 (c. £60,000), some pieces went for as little as £4 or £5 (c. £300 or c.£380 today) including a fantastic tiny image of A Witch Riding a Goat Backwards from c.1596-98 by Adam Elsheimer which is worth £5 of anyone’s money. And most interesting to note is how many of these objects have ended up back in British collections, repurchased in the ensuing centuries and often the property of the Queen, making this again a rare chance to see objects from the current Royal Collection, while at least three of the paintings were paid to the state in lieu of tax owed by some strapped aristocrat.

Most impressive of these is a room dedicated to the The Triumph of Caesar by Andrea Mantegna created between 1485 and 1506 across 9 separately created panels representing one celebratory event. These huge canvases, paled by the years, each depict one aspect of the event, including the march of the elephants, a collection of musicians and some of the purloined treasures from Caesar’s conquests paraded for the Roman people. As with much art in this period, the people look rather more medieval than classically Roman, but the detail and sense of chaos in Mantegna’s images are astounding. He captures the verve and excitement of the Triumph, building to the final piece showing Caesar himself with winged lackey holding a laurel wreath over his head – but crucially with face turned away to remind him of his mortality.

There are plenty of religious and mythological subjects on hand, not least in the paintings Charles owned by Titian, and in sections dedicated to ‘The Northern Renaissance’ and ‘The Italian Renaissance’ suggesting how meaningful these subjects were to the British royal family at the time. And Titian fans will be delighted to see plenty of his work on display, including a characterful portrait of Charles V painted in 1533, the depiction of Jesus convincing two disciples of his resurrection in The Supper at Emmaus from 1534 and the striking The Allocution of Alfonso d’Avalos to His Troops painted in 1540-41, one of the many pictures full of symbols of regality and power that are striking across Charles’s collection.

There are royal family portraits in abundance as well, most notably in a room dedicated largely to van Dyck’s images of Charles, Henrietta Maria and their children, deliberately depicting a stable, loving family with Charles at its head. The Great Peece from 1632 show the family with two of their children in the foreground with Westminster depicted behind. Intended to suggest the King’s dominion over Parliament, it’s sadly foreboding seen from this side of the execution. Equally laden with meaning is the rather charming Charles I and Henrietta Maria Holding a Laurel Wreath painted by van Dyck in 1632 as a celebration of a victory, with the Queen handing her husband a symbol of peace in return. It’s an intimate but still stately image as Henrietta Maria gazes openly at the viewer, while its style predicates the couples-portraiture of the eighteenth-century. There’s also some rarely-seen delicate Holbein drawings from The Royal Collection as well as miniatures of Charles’s antecedents including his elder brother Henry who died before ascending the throne.

Equestrian Portrait of Charles IThese are bolstered by the centrepiece of the exhibition, a central chamber filled with glorious portraits of Charles himself, each laden with regal and heraldic symbolism but filled by the sad-eyed stare of the man never raised to rule. Now in the Louvre, van Dycke’s Charles I in the Hunting Field from 1636 shows the King at the height of his Personal Rule (where he dismissed Parliament for more than a decade) looking imperious and fashionable in a country scene. Opposite this is Charles I with M. de St Antoine painted in 1633 depicting the monarch riding through a triumphal arch on horseback, shown as every inch the chivalric warrior King. Best of all, borrowed from its usual home in the National Gallery, is one of my favourite paintings, the Equestrian Portrait of Charles I from 1636-37 which is laden with heraldic meaning and, despite having a stunted horse’s head to ensure Charles looks more powerful, is one of the most imposing and magnificent depictions of Kingship ever painted.

Taking the best part of two hours to see and containing well over 100 works of art Charles I: King and Collector is an incredible achievement and a once in the whole of history chance to see one of the finest art collections ever created. The Royal Academy’s success is crowned by the astonishing and personal story of a tragic ruler whose disastrous political affairs have dominated modern understanding. Each picture gives us a 450-year story of how Charles’s treasured collection became fragmented and sold in the scorched earth days after the execution. More than this, however, the exhibition only serves to reinforce Charles’s importance in British history and, with statues, churches and images all over modern London, why the circumstances of his life, trial and execution continue to haunt us.

Charles I: King and Collector is at the Royal Academy until 15 April. Tickets are £18 (without donation) and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Frozen – Theatre Royal Haymarket

Frozen, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Illness or evil, what causes people to commit genuinely horrific crimes and, for relatives or friends, is it ever possible to really forgive? Bryony Lavery’s 1998 play Frozen taps into our continual fascination with crime, particular with gruesome murder cases, and in writing this story about a grieving mother, criminal psychologist and a paedophilic serial killer, Lavery was the fore-runner for popular culture’s obsession with representing the darkest of human acts. The cosy murder mysteries cling on, but modern crime dramas can be a brutal experience; The Fall, Hard Sun, Luther, even the most recent Agatha Christie adaptations have been quite unforgiving. And it’s the villains that keep us watching.

Lavery’s play shuns physical brutality for a psychological examination of killer and relatives, but this is nonetheless an uncomfortable experience for an audience asked to understand both points of view without entirely, or exclusively, sympathising with either. Yet the play’s very existence also asks interesting questions about the way we view crime as a form of entertainment, seeing our professed shock and outrage at heinous acts as pantomimic reactions that are equal parts disbelief and enjoyment, a throw-back to the days of public execution, the filthier the crime and the more heavy-handed the punishment, the greater the frenzy to know every detail.

In understanding this insalubrious aspect of human behaviour, Lavery makes the audience awkwardly complicit in her story at the very moment they are rustling their sweet-papers and nursing interval drinks. And there is something unnerving, even warped, about the idea of people snacking away while watching an unfolding story of unrepentant, murderous paedophilia and the struggle of two very different women to understand how and why someone would kill a child. So, Frozen, perhaps unintentionally, also makes you wonder what’s wrong with all of us, that we can remain emotionally distant yet glued to cases like these, morally repulsed yet still able to finish our bag of Sherbet Lemons.

10-year-old Rhona is abducted on her way to her grandmother’s house, taken by creepy killer Ralph as a relief from the pain of his latest weird tattoo. As several other bodies are discovered Ralph is sent to prison where years later he meets academic psychiatrist Agnetha who holds regularly sessions with Ralph to contribute to her research, arguing that criminal behaviour stems from their own childhood mistreatment. Running alongside this, Rhona’s mother Nancy spends years hoping her daughter will return, and when she finally learns the truth she feels an emptiness that leads to activism.

Based on the title, it’s safe to say that anyone expecting Frozen to be about ice princesses and comedy snowmen would be in for a rude awakening.  Jonathan Mumby’s production at the Theatre Royal Haymarket manages to fight the size of the auditorium to offer an intimate and revealing portrait of three strangers forever connected by one crime. Mumby has taken Lavery’s not entirely satisfactory drama and, worked with the designer to create an innovatively-staged and free-flowing show that seamlessly overlays a series of fairly short scenes, as character perspectives start to overlap.

Using video images of water-shapes, a crackling image of Rhona and depictions of the brain’s internal wiring, these are projected in quick succession onto frosted plastic flies that come together to create a series of rooms and locations in moments, taking the audience from Rhona’s childhood bedroom, preserved for decades by her grieving mother, to Ralph’s simple jail cell and to the King’s College London lecture hall where Agnetha delivers a presentation on her findings.

This latter section is particularly well-staged as Mumby utilises the full-width of the stage so Agnetha can walk from the lectern directly into the room where she’s “treating” Ralph, peppering the key points of her lecture with dramatized examples of their conversations. The staging offers a sense of all characters being hemmed-in to an extent by the circumstances of the crime, while reinforcing Lavery’s multi-meaning interpretation of being frozen which is applied to each of the character’s slightly differently.

And while it is a play where emotions rise and fall over more than twenty years, this interpretation purposefully limits the histrionics, taking a more forensic approach to unveiling each of the characters motivation and arc during this time. It utilises a narrative structure in which each character directly addresses the audience, unveiling their point of view in a succession of quick scenes. Yet, as affecting drama, it is only partially successful, and while it has moments of intensity, the central section isn’t able to fully overcome the slightly undernourished aspects of Lavery’s characterisation and the rapidly passing years between scenes seem to take Nancy in particular to a surprisingly matter-of-fact acceptance of her daughter’s murder without giving the audience or the actor the chance to fully explore the immediate impact of the abduction, meaning what follows for that character is a little diluted.

The trouble is, everyone loves a villain and it is Ralph who feels the most tangible of the characters, given an unsavoury reality in Jason Watkins superb performance that dominates the production. Right from the start, Ralph’s true nature is offered up, unabashed and almost proud of his sickening tastes that will make you squirm in your seat. After an early fruitless search of his rented flat, Watkins is shudder-inducing as he reveals the contents of his treasured suitcase to the audience which he has recovered from his garage.

What is so important about Watkin’s performance, is the eerie normality he brings to the role, making Ralph all too imaginable. There are slight physical tics like a gentle limp on one leg but subtly done to suggest his own complex backstory, and the intensity of the performance, the fascination with his sense of order, offers meat to Agnetha’s argument about his psychological damage. Watkins presents a character who is largely without remorse, wishing his tastes were tolerated, a fairly bland man just slightly off-centre which makes him genuinely chilling.

The production’s big draw is a rare stage appearance for Suranne Jones as mother Nancy who is the emotional heart of the story. As we follow the aftermath of the tragedy, Jones takes us from continued hope that Rhona is still alive – a state that last for some years – to her growing activism, speaking at events that support women enduring similar ordeals. All of this is managed very credibly, while utilising the approachable warmth that Jones brings to her celebrated screen performances.

The emotional heft is there too, particularly in a tender moment with her daughter’s remains, and alongside her domestic activities, Jones’s Nancy tries to hold together the rest of her family, including a crucial relationship with her other unseen daughter, and the audience is given a clear sense of the texture of Nancy’s domestic life and the wider effect of the crime. The speed of the passing years between scenes means that the immediate aftermath of the abduction is suddenly 5 or even 20 years later so Jones presents a woman trying to get on with things but set on a permanently different course than the one she intended.

Lavery’s deliberately scientific characterisation and fascination with her villain does keep you a little more distant than her grieving mother and damaged psychologist deserve, and while Nina Sosanya does a fine job as American-Scandinavian criminologist Agnetha, the character isn’t fully developed on the page. Given her own backstory of sudden panic attacks and an emotional entanglement that affects her work, Agnetha’s is little more than Lavery’s academic mouthpiece, a chance to display the detailed research into the criminal brain.

Sosanya is a fine actress nonetheless and keeps you engaged, particularly in the direct confrontations with Ralph, as she attempts to lure him out. Its set-up replicates but lacks the danger of the Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter conversations in The Silence of the Lambs, but Sosanya clearly charts the developing human affection Agnetha develops, and, having treated him as little more than a specimen in the beginning, she starts to appreciate the contribution to her work, as well as pity for the damage inflicted on him in childhood.

Frozen is a complex play that asks the viewer to detest the actions of the paedophilic murderer while equally attempting to understand them. There is a conversation about illness versus evil that runs through the show, and, while it makes a case for the former it isn’t supported by any suggestion of what society should do about this other than forgive the perpetrators. The individual narrative structure doesn’t surprise you, and clearly builds to character cross-overs with Nancy, Agnetha and Ralph rather inevitably appearing in each other’s stories.

There are comparisons to be made with Jennifer Haley’s The Nether which opened at the Royal Court in 2014 before transferring to the Duke of York’s the next year. Dealing with a similar topic but updated to online predators, The Nether was a challenging watch that made you feel sullied as you left the theatre. Frozen doesn’t quite have the same overwhelming effect, and while it effectively grapples with dark themes, its more clinical approach wants the audience to think about the cause of these behaviours and the possibility of forgiveness. Well performed and interestingly staged, Frozen’s most important effect is in reflecting society’s unhealthy obsession with serious crime, making us complicit in its presentation as entertainment.

Frozen is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 24 April with tickets from £10 for restricted view seats. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

The York Realist – Donmar Warehouse

Like a Yorkshire Brief Encounter, Peter Gill’s 2001 play The York Realist set in the 1960s has lost none of its power in the 17 years since it was written. Rather, it has only grown in stature as a sensitive and restrained tale of love and loss set against a background of tradition, duty and expectation in a Yorkshire farming village. The Donmar Warehouse’s revival couldn’t be more timely; two years ago the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality reinvigorated interest in telling the stories of repression and prejudice while celebrating hard-won rights and freedoms. This culminated in a seminal production of Angels in America at the National Theatre last year, which recently opened on Broadway, while Francis Lee’s 2016 film God’s Own Country also set on a Yorkshire farm has earned itself a number of BAFTA nominations.

The Yorkshire countryside has long been an inspiration for writers looking to elucidate the link between the unforgivingly beautiful landscape and the stoical men and doughty women who feel enduringly tethered to their physical surroundings. It may have started with Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights as the wild moors became synonymous with her dark hero Heathcliff, but plenty of great work has followed, from the comic creations of Alan Ayckbourn, each tinged with a deep-rooted sadness, through John Godber to more recent work such as James Graham’s fringe play Sons of York, as well as films including last year’s Dark River with Ruth Wilson. Yorkshire is arguably the one county that continues to fascinate and inspire popular culture.

With more than a nod to DH Lawrence, The York Realist may have a tough exterior, set in a slightly rundown cottage with an outdoor loo in the middle of solitary acres of hard farming land where nothing has changed for decades or even centuries, but it’s actually a fragile and deeply emotional piece. In Robert Hastie’s wonderful new production it feels like delicate china in your hands, as though any second you might crush it to pieces, and the gentle unfolding of Gill’s tale of impossible love clutches at your heart, making it ache for these victims of circumstance.

One evening while having his tea, young farmer George is surprised to find John, an Assistant Director, on his doorstep wondering why he hasn’t been to rehearsal for the York Mystery play for a few weeks. That night their relationship begins, but with a farm to run, a live-in ailing mother to take care of, his sister’s family nearby and plenty of neighbours traipsing through, the two men find themselves on different paths. As John’s visit to Yorkshire comes to end and a return to London beckons, what future can they have even when circumstances change?

Taking place entirely in George’s farm kitchen, the play starts with a Brief Encounter-style ending as John arrives evidently many months after their separation. Exactly like Noel Coward and David Lean’s film, by setting-up the beginning of the end in advance Gill’s play creates an emotional pitch from the start as this small teaser fades instantly back into the past re-establishing a world long disappeared. Gill takes the audience back to only the crucial moments of George’s recent past where love, family and possibility existed and were sacrificed, while commenting on a lost agricultural world of community and support.

The Lawrence parallels are clear, dominant mothers, silent sons with artistic souls, the warmth and sometimes claustrophobic effect of small working-class communities and feeling as though opportunity narrows rather than increases with age. Gill, like Lawrence writes with romantic realism about the land, of the physical connection to place in a way people can never feel in cities, and this flows through Hastie’s production as each of the residents we meet feels permanently anchored to Mother’s kitchen, the latest in generations of Yorkshire folk to have been part of this enduring community.

This sense of timelessness is also represented in Peter McKintosh’s set design, incorporating a graphic depiction of those ancient hills and dales that stand eternally behind the house, suggesting both a hint of life beyond the walls of the cottage – which John offers to George – while also being the reason he can never accept it, can never be too far from this stretch of earth. While ostensibly set in the 1960s, there’s deliberately little here to suggest that decade apart from the odd text reference.

Instead, McKintosh has rightly chosen to create something that looks long-standing in both the set and costumes, built at any time in the last 100 years, dominated by an ancient cooking range and fireplace, and added to by the occupants -while the 60s may be raging elsewhere, here modernity and history have little place. And for a production that makes its central love story with virtually no physical contact so poignant, this agelessness adds to its power and effect on the viewer.

Hastie’s approach draws out some concept of contrasting worlds, of the comparative social freedoms and variety of London life, referenced in one of George’s later conversations, and the more contained existence of the Yorkshire farmer, but it’s not a point that’s laboured. In some ways the differences between George and John are the very reason they are drawn to one another and why they are a perfect match, but – like Laura and Alec – it’s circumstance and duty that forces them apart, an inability to take the ultimate disruptive step, to pull down their existing lives for one another. Fear not difference divides them.

Ben Batt as George, slowly builds a sense of inner turmoil, and the importance of the deep-rooted connection not just to John, but to his mother and to his community. What begins as expected – a quiet no-nonsense Yorkshireman – soon flourishes as performing in the Mystery Play gives him confidence, and a taste of wider purpose. Batt reveals George’s essential fragility and vast emotional life in stages as we see the happiness performing brings him comes with the pain of discovering a talent too late for it to change his world.

As the plot unfolds, Batt starts to retreat once more behind his stone wall as the disappointments stack-up, but by this time it’s clear to the audience the raging feeling underneath. There is a claim to home, family and decency in his character that he is powerless to resist, which builds well to a final meeting with John where the pain of allowing himself to open-out only to be stung becomes incredibly affecting in Batt’s wonderful performance as he struggles to reclose his heart and face a future of lonely expectation and duty.

In Jonathan Bailey’s performance John is much easier in his own skin, with fewer ties to a sense of place and purpose than George which gives him a transitory feel. Though wedded to the idea of London and the development of his career which he is as unwilling to sacrifice as his lover, John feels instantly at home in Mother’s cottage, thrilled by the location and the ancient authenticity of George’s family home, welcoming him warmly in.

Yet John is also unable to quite grasp the importance of the Yorkshire family, and in Bailey’s equally contained performance, there is a sense of John wanting to improve George’s life by rescuing him and freeing his talent for performance and expression. Bailey demonstrates that for John artistic freedom and pursuit sit above anything else, and, with no mention of family or home of his own, John cannot imagine any longstanding commitment that would remove him from his world. While the feeling between both men is clearly tangible and heart-warming, they can only ever be ‘visitors’ in each other’s experiences.

Despite George’s essential loneliness, his home is never empty with a succession of people popping by throughout the play, and no one is alone in the kitchen for more than a few moments. Lesley Nicol brings subtly to the role of George’s Mother, a hearty woman whose continually tiredness is covered up by her own sense of duty, a need to keep house for her working son. There is an ease between the two that allows Nicol to exert a domestic care but also shows she is a stalwart of her community, attending church and supplying endless cups of tea that no one gets to finish.

Lucy Black as George’s sister Barbara, Matthew Wilson as her husband Arthur and Katie West as neighbour Doreen add texture, helping to create a solid sense of local life beyond the kitchen that includes working on the farm and going to one of the local pubs. West’s Doreen is also George’s alternative life, someone he could marry largely because the circumstances are right, they are the same age more or less and both essentially kind-hearted. But Black and West have a lovely all-female duologue in which they gently hint that they know and accept George’s true inclinations, and there is some well-played ambiguity as to whether Doreen will fully accept her lot.

There is real tenderness in Hastie’s production of The York Realist which runs through this well-realised 1hr and 45-minute show. There is an interval and despite its short run-time, this one feels necessary, giving the audience a chance to reflect, allowing the various ideas of place, home and identity to sink in before the conclusion. Nothing feels rushed, allowing this beautifully sad production to really touch the heart. A modern classic and a Yorkshire Brief Encounter indeed.

The York Realist is at the Donmar Warehouse until 24 March. Tickets are largely sold out but are available through the Klaxon Scheme every Monday at 12pm and daily standing tickets are released at 10am. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

Long Day’s Journey into Night – Wyndhams Theatre

Long Days Journey into Night by Hugo Glendinning

The experience and characteristics of addiction seem like a very modern scourge, the result of a newly pressured, fast-paced, status-driven society that encourages people to ‘have it all’, the perfect job, the perfect family and a fabulous Instagram-able social life. For some, keeping up means having to rely on artificial stimulants, particularly alcohol and caffeine which have become not just essential but entirely normalised; addiction is no longer an exceptional refuge for the broken few but a basic state of being for a whole generation working longer hours and living in the ever-present Social Media glare.

Popular culture started to explore different kinds of addiction long ago; Danny Boyle and Steve McQueen have filmed it, Amy Winehouse sang about it and most recently the National Theatre put it on stage as the acclaimed People, Places and Things, but this interest is far from a recent phenomenon; examining addiction is not really that new at all, and many playwrights have grappled with the causes and effects of addictive behaviour on the user and those around them. While Noel Coward penned a shocking mother-son drama about drug abuse as early as the 1920s (The Vortex), Eugene O’Neill set his 1941 semi-autobiographical masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night in 1912, where arguably the multiple addictive behaviour he examines were even more taboo.

This rather hefty play is set at a crucial time of change in the early twentieth-century when nineteenth-century formalities were being shrugged off and Western societies began to move towards an urban-based, mechanised future catalysed by international warfare. But O’Neill was also writing at the time of America’s entry into the Second World War, making subtle contemporary statements about the final lull before the storm, knowing something big and familiar is approaching which the characters hoped could be avoided.

Like Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance, there is also an examination of the long-term effect of a transient lifestyle, of on-going drug and alcohol dependence. Substitute James and Mary Tyrone for the Bright Young Things of the 1920s or prohibition era America – contemporaries of O’Neill – both are now dealing with the consequences of their younger lifestyle, the attraction of the big city and the lasting damage to mind and character that their excesses created. The scene title may be 1912 but O’Neil had plenty to say about the times he lived in.

The Bristol Old Vic’s production starring Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville transfers to the West End for a limited run at the Wyndhams, and its clear that these wider themes are as much part of Richard Eyre’s surefooted interpretation as the fairly straightforward story of a disillusioned family coming to terms with the cycle of relapse and rehab. At the Tyrone summer home, Mary is newly returned to her husband and grown-up sons after spending some time restoring her health. James Tyrone, a well-regarded stage actor in New York, is delighted to see his wife so healthy but endures a prickly relationship with sons Jamie and Edmund. During the course of one long day, Mary’s behaviour becomes increasingly frantic and as familiar patterns of behaviour emerge, blame, recrimination and regret are never far from the surface.

Everyone in Richard Eyre’s production has sold their soul to something that they think will save them from the difficulties of their lives, and they find solace in some form of addiction. The cause of Mary’s nervy behaviour and swinging moods is only slowly revealed as the play unfolds and, for first time viewers, many alternative possibilities suggest themselves before the truth is revealed. For the men around her though, their dependence on alcohol, even with a bout of tuberculosis, is as vital to them as breathing (probably not one to attempt a drink along).

Actor James pontificates frequently, enjoying the status that fame has brought him and goading his sons for their lack of independence – a state he presumably has caused through his parenting. And here Jeremy Irons makes use of his stature to offer a gruff but polished creation, entranced by the sound of his own voice and blind to the effect his behaviour has on those around him. He may not quite be the tough figure of Irish descent the text suggests, but, still handsome and imposing, Irons captures a crucial aspect of James’s character making his still fervent love for Mary appear between the cracks, his devotion to her a clear explanation of why he continues to hope the woman he first met can return to him.

In many ways, it’s James who is the most tragic character, and as we later discover the reputation he clings to, the presentation of himself as an erudite leading man is less assured than we supposed, that he sold-out his early promise for a guaranteed income, a choice many actors must make. So, Irons shows us that James’s brusque treatment of his sons and his frequently mocked stinginess, is rather more defensive than offensive, designed to create the illusion of power and influence in the one place he thinks he can have full command. The frequent whiskies are used to prevent those truths becoming too vocal in his mind.

Mary is a much harder character to chart and the always quietly brilliant Lesley Manville is spectacular in showing both why Mary’s unpredictability would be frustrating to live with, while extracting incredible pathos for a woman desperate to seek shelter from what has been a lifetime of disappointment and emotional devastation. Seeing the newly Oscar-nominated actor on stage is always a joy as Manville brings so many layers to whatever part she plays, spinning from comedy to pain, happiness and despair so effortlessly that a role as complex as Mary is perfectly suited to her considerable skills.

And that is something Manville must do repeatedly as the vigour and contentment of Mary’s morning mood gives way to a highly-strung nervousness which Manville slowly introduces into the performance. As the day wears on, the extremes of behaviour become more pronounced, vacillating convincingly between minor fusses about her to hair to full-blown self-pity, effusive worrying and bitter diatribes about her husband as her addiction regains its hold over her. Her repeated references to a lost child, to her friendlessness, the loneliness that comes from a life moving between hotels for James’s work, not having a home, a place to properly root herself unveil the circularity of her thought, loosening her grip on reality. Manville’s skill here is in showing that Mary both fears and embraces the addiction that she cannot shake, that in this particular environment, which she loathes, her dependency saves her from it, while retaining a hint of the alluring beauty she once was as her past revisits her.

Sons Jamie and Edmund are not entirely eclipsed by their parents and Rory Keenan offers a meaningful performance as Jamie, the eldest son who proves a constant disappointment with his drinking and womanising. Following his father into acting, Keenan’s Jamie is a lost soul, seeking pleasure where he can as a solace from the pain of his mother’s compulsion. Matthew Beard’s Edmund is a calmer presence, having to face a potentially fatal diagnosis of his own while carrying the burden of being the literary son with most potential. All of the men in the play, father and sons, clearly demonstrate the crushing devastation of having their hopes destroyed which is the catalyst for the hours of family revelation that follow.

The Tyrone’s summer house is beautifully conceived by designer Rob Howell as a prison of reflective surfaces with the interior and exterior in constant battle. Reflecting all of the characters’ inner confliction, the predominantly glass structure repeatedly reflects their own image back at them, while offering them a hint of the freedom outside that they will never enjoy. Howell allows elements of that outside world to burst into the house with swirls of Van Gogh-like paint that curls around the back corner of the room and the stairs, leading to the backlit skyscape outside, created by Peter Mumford, as changing slashes of colour dampen the sunrise as fog envelops the house once again. That idea of light into dark is equally reflected in Howell’s costume design as the pale linens of daytime dress give way to funereal black as events formalise.

At three and a half hours this is a very lengthy play, and while Eyre directs with light and pace in the first half (about an hour and twenty minutes), the final protracted section is a marathon for an audience, especially once it becomes clear that each character will get their final turn in the spotlight before its conclusion. Like Annie Baker’s new play John, also clocking in at well over three hours, there is something magnetic about each conversation in Long Day’s Journey into Night which keeps you engaged, but there are momentary lulls in between where the energy sags that are harder to navigate, and you may fade out a little before being hooked into the next discussion.

The Bristol Old Vic’s production is lovingly created, wringing excellent performances from its leads and bringing clarity to O’Neill’s huge canvas. It’s not an easy watch, and it may be quite some time before you want to see another version of this play, but this high-quality production emphasises the relevance of O’Neill’s most personal story. What his work demonstrates is whatever popular culture may tell us now, addictive behaviours are neither new nor confined to a particular class. Loneliness, fear and powerlessness can affect anyone, and however perfect their life may seem on the outside, for addicts and their families O’Neill wants us to know there will be plenty of long days and nights to suffer.

Long Day’s Journey into Night is at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 7 April. Tickets start at £12.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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