Tag Archives: American drama

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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John – National Theatre

John, National Theatre

2017 was a great year for new writing and in the next few months, judging panels will have the unenviable task of trying to decide whether Oslo, Ink or The Ferryman deserves the accolade of best new play, knowing that whoever they chose, will rob the other two. But now three weeks into January, the first new play of 2018 is opening at the National Theatre. Following the success of The Flick which had it’s UK premiere in the Dorfman in 2016, Annie Baker’s latest play, intriguingly called John and first performed in New York in 2015, makes its London debut in the same space. Baker’s work is a subtle examination of modern ideas of self-worth, often bringing characters together at times of transition, trapping them in a contained, often claustrophobic space, as they try to determine a way forward.

Troubled young couple, Jenny and Elias, arrive at a local bed and breakfast for a few days as they pause their trip to visit some local Civil War sites. It’s the week after Thanksgiving and along with the decorations, the strange little house, run by host Mertis, is filled with dolls and ephemera that clutter every available surface. During their stay the couple get to know more about the attentive owner, and, as their own relationship begins to strain, confide in her hoping to discover what their future should hold.

No one should go to a Baker play expecting plots stuffed with drama and activity, instead she writes slow-burn stories that centre almost entirely on character and theme. The National Theatre’s production may have so far managed to shave 10 minutes off the run-time but John is a monster show of 3 hours and 20 minutes with two intervals. Yet, there is considerable engagement with the world Baker creates, and you feel yourself pulled into their discussions about love and purpose. Baker has a particular ear for realistic dialogue and while she out Pinters Pinter with elaborately long pauses and deliberate stillness, her writing genuinely reflects the small moments of awkwardness or tension between sentences that accurately reflect the circularity and stilted nature of real conversation.

Despite its title, this is a play about women and for much of the time it is the female characters whose perspectives we hear and sympathise with. But they are complicated and, as we discover in the plot, not always entirely moral people whose bad behaviour is called into question. Purposefully the three women are nothing alike, representing very different kinds of living as small-town collides with the big city, work and home, glamour and comfort crash into one another while still finding a semblance of emotional common ground between them.

And it is the power of three that seems to fill Baker’s work, as many of John’s scenes are an ongoing dialogue between three people, often those with a close relationship and an alien third. Initially it is the central characters, Jenny, Elias and Mertis, but increasingly as the central couple’s stability begins to fracture we see other trios deliberately and, sometimes unexpectedly united – one of Baker’s skills is to suggest that there are always three people even when you only see two.

For instance, early on, the audience discovers why Jenny and Elias’s relationship is so precarious and all of their conversations, including muffled offstage arguments, have the presence of a third party hanging between them. Even in the occasional spots of happiness, the reality of their predicament intrudes upon them, borne out by other aspects of Baker’s writing, not only the mysterious absence of Mertis’s husband who she claims is in the house yet unwell, but also the continual references to the universe, to spirituality, ghosts and God. Never fully elucidated or woven successfully into the text, these themes nonetheless reiterate the idea of the constant third in any scenario, someone who silently watches.

The idea of being observed is raised several times, and in a particularly neat duologue between Mertis and Elias both recall feeling observed as a child, concluding that this presence was guiding and protecting them. Jenny feels differently, and in a separate conversation triggered by seeing the same toy in Mertis’s house, has a more unnerving and judgemental interaction with a doll she claimed used to make bad things happen to her which she would have to make amends for. Baker uses this to reinforce her idea about individual conscience and self-worth, showing that Jenny in particular requires external validation for her actions even if those are projected into a lifeless figurine.

For the second time in as many weeks the private home turned into a hotel becomes an important setting, used to create a tone of uncertainty and underscore the tension to be drawn from the arrival of strangers into someone’s else’s environment. From Pinter’s seaside boarding house in last week’s The Birthday Party designed by the Quay Brothers, to this sinister establishment in Gettysburg America, the displacement of characters is reinforced by inserting them into a world far from their own. For all its domestic warmth and cosy appeal, Chloe Lamford’s detailed set suggests at best a quirky owner, and a worst something considerably more sinister beneath the chintz and endlessly staring figures that make Brooklynites Jenny and Elias seem out of place.

Lamford has created a strange little world of domestic harmony crossed with eccentricity, which fills the centre of the room with sofas and a bizarre self-playing piano, while at one end is an enormous window that looks out onto the beautifully coloured sunsets, lit by Peter Mumford, that offer freedom and a slightly obsessive idea of the natural beauty of the universe which is a frequent refrain in the text. At the opposite end of the room is “Paris”, Mertis’s arrangement of bistro tables for her guests to use.

Director James Macdonald allows all of these elements to coexist in a jumbled harmony that reflects the cluttered set and emotions of the characters. Nothing is rushed which, to the despair of some audience members, means things move very slowly across the evening, giving the protagonists time to think, to sit and to reflect which is so true to life but so rarely permitted on stage for fear of losing the audience’s attention. It’s such a shame, however, that too many long conversations happen at the far sides of the stage meaning a good proportion of the Dorfman audience cannot see anything.

Having a proscenium arch show always feels like such a waste in this most flexible of theatres, and while necessary for this one, poor blocking often puts all the characters out of sight of anyone seated at the sides. You are warned about restricted views of course, but the scenes could be positioned a little better and given that a lot of people moved seats in the interval, there are clear benefits in rethinking a couple of those extreme side locations before press night (although of course critics will be seated where they can see best).

Mertis the B&B owner is a fascinating creation, at once cosy and welcoming, thoughtful and kind to her clearly cold and fractious guest, but with an underlying sinister tone that would allow the character to be interpreted in several different ways and leaves plenty of unanswered questions about who she is. Marylouise Burke decides to make her a semi-sweet all-American mother-figure, fussing about the home and plying her guests with biscuits.

Yet she is a mass of contradictions, refusing to turn on the heating at night despite a shivering Jenny having to sleep in the living room. Mertis also makes dismissive references to some of her rooms having a mind of their own, and Burke continually makes it seem that Mertis is hiding facts if not outright lying to cover up something unsavoury. Even the strange absence of her second husband is dismissed so suspiciously by Burke that the audience begins to wonder if there is something much stranger happening in this house, but the joy of Burke’s sweetness and light approach is that the audience is never quite sure if something much more terrifying is about to occur.

Anneika Rose plays Jenny as a modern woman keen to make amends but unwilling to continually prostrate herself for past indiscretions. Its clear she has made the trip to Gettysburg to placate Elias but uses the time to try to discover her future. Rose makes Jenny smart and friendly, fascinated by ideas about the enormity of the world that come through conversations with Mertis and her friend Genevieve. We see her become increasingly dissatisfied with Elias, and, despite her conscious attempts to be close to him, she actively seeks time away from him, their room and their joint activities, a separation that Rose charts convincingly.

Elias is a more neurotic character than his girlfriend, and Tom Mothersdale allows much of that to stem from an idea of moral superiority, of being the wronged man. Fascinated by the Civil War, and carrying the burden of an unconventional hippy Jewish childhood, it isn’t until much later in the play that Elias is given the chance to reveal his own inner turmoil, and Mothersdale takes the opportunity to balance the scales with an important and well delivered discussion with his hostess about whether to persist with or end his relationship, tempering his unyielding exterior with moments of doubt and sympathy.

John has its faults and some of the themes aren’t as clearly elucidated as they need to be to draw all of the strands together satisfactorily, but Baker’s plays are so rich with detail and full of insight into the way people really behave that they draw you into their world for the duration. With plenty of new plays yet to come in 2018, Baker has set the tone with an intriguing examination of the fear of being watched and judged that prevents people from living the life they should.

John is at the National Theatre until 3 March and tickets start at £15. The National Theatre also offers £20 tickets for the week ahead in its Friday Rush scheme.


The Glass Menagerie – Duke of York’s Theatre

glass-menagerie

Absence and disappointment fill Tennessee Williams’s first big successful play The Glass Menagerie, but its appeal rests in the charm of its small family, one room set-up that continues to feel relevant and troubling today. Yet it’s been quite some time since a production has reached the West End despite a well-received version at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2015; A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof come round fairly often, and we even had a rather flat production of In the Bar of the Tokyo Hotel last year at the Charing Cross Theatre, but the complexities of Williams’s 1944 play with its hyper-realised memory-format make it difficult to do well.

The 2013 American Repertory Theatre production of this play has finally made it to London, where it has already received stellar reviews to add to its Tony nominations from Broadway. And all of them are entirely deserved in a production that showcases the complexities of family relationships and pointedly reveals the inner-life of its characters. The one thing you’ll hear over and over again about this play is that it is Williams’s most autobiographical work but how much he has drawn from his own life and experiences in the several years it took to compose this play are debatable, but that is not all there is to say about this remarkable drama.

Set in the Wingfield’s small St Louis flat in an unremarkable tenant block, the narrator Tom lives with his mother and sister in genteel poverty. Tom works at the local shoe warehouse and dreams of freedom from the burden of providing for his family, a burden which takes him to ‘the movies’ every night to escape into the adventure of the silver screen. Matriarch Amanda has cared for her, now adult, children since her husband abandoned them many years before and dreams of receiving a “gentlemen caller” to marry her painfully shy and slightly disabled daughter Laura. Obsessed with her own past glories as a younger woman, Amanda nags and harries Tom until he finally agrees to bring home a friend from work, a night that changes everything.

Where Williams excels as a dramatist is his ability to show an audience what’s going on under the skin of his characters even when their surface demeanour is calm, poised and seemingly repressed. Particularly drawn to people who aspire to a type of gentility they lack or have since lost, Williams characters often burn with an interior passion for something or someone that can never be realised, or if it is will be a fleeting pleasure rather than the much needed change of life. We see this in Blanche who yearns for the respectability of marriage and stability but cannot fight her baser attractions to virile younger men, and we see it in Maggie who tries to be a dutiful daughter-in-law and wife but cannot contain her unrequited passion for her husband and his protection from the machinations of his family.

In The Glass Menagerie, and so beautifully realised in this production, the three primary characters struggle in exactly the same way, having to present one face to the world, to show acceptance and duty, while inside their fantasies of escape and freedom fight to emerge. The dramatic frame is set by Tom who speaks directly to the audience at the beginning from some future time, long after the events the play recounts. These are his memories and ones we are asked not to trust, as they are filled with illusion and his years of regret. Tom (which happens to be Williams’s real name) is then partly an unreliable narrator but also someone we come to view quite differently as events play out.

Initially he seems a steady, reliable young man, worn down by the drudgery of his work who seeks solace for his sensitive soul in writing poetry and going to the cinema. But actor Michael Esper slowly reveals the complexities under the surface, a sense of frustration with his overbearing mother and her constant interference, a rage against the world for forcing him into a life he didn’t want and, somewhat surprisingly, a secret drive to abandon them entirely. It is in the second act that an unexpected darkness emerges in Tom as he fights for his own survival, and in Esper’s performance you get clever hints that Tom is not all he seems, that ‘the movies’ may not be what we think and his interest in Jim the “gentleman caller” is something less wholesome than his family believes.

Similarly sister Laura, played by Kate O’Flynn is a delicate, broken creature, drummed into shyness and a sense of inferiority by the demands of her mother. Obsessed with caring for her collection of glass ornaments, represented here as only one small glass unicorn, Laura we learn has lived a life unfulfilled by work or love, clinging only to the constancy of her fragile collection. And while away from her mother we see her care for her brother’s welfare, it is with the arrival of Jim that O’Flynn allows Laura’s true character to burst into life, as she warms to the gentleness of his treatment, becoming talkative and momentarily happy in his presence. We see that despite her reticence she yearns for the kind of love her mother dreams of for her, something she has always convinced herself was not possible for someone like her. And the audience truly feels for her as the play reaches its conclusion.

In many ways, Amanda is the most complicated role of them all and Cherry Jones’s Tony-nominated performance is a masterclass in Williams’s pushy Southern women. Disguised as a protective instinct, to save her children from vice, Amanda is concerned that the world should see her as a decent, dignified woman. Like her children she has no current friends to speak of, but she revels in memories of her past that seem as real to her in Jones’s performance, as the present day. We never know really what happened with her husband and there are some hints that he was unsuitable, but she focuses on the many offers and admirers she once had, and the dreamlike reality of that earlier happier time. Amanda nags and berates her children, interferes in their business and talks excessively at people, so the audience understands Tom’s need to escape entirely. Yet, Jones still makes her sympathetic, affected by the absence of her husband and the disappointment of a life that promised so much and delivered so little.

Although a relatively small role Jim played by Brian J. Smith, the infamous “gentleman caller” is a sensitive young man who arrives at the Wingfield’s with no expectation of why he’s really there. Williams also gives him a similar sense of internal and external battle as he is drawn to Laura’s sadness and tries to gently nurture her confidence. Smith dominates the few scenes he’s in, as a breath of fresh air that blows through the Wingfield house bringing momentary hope and happiness to everyone inside, which serves to makes the conclusion only feel more emotive.

John Tiffany directs with a deep understanding of the layers in Williams’s play, while cleverly mixing a sense of encroaching reality with the ephemeral nature of memory. Natasha Katz’s lighting design adds to the dreamlike quality of the production and the slightly haunting nature of Tom’s few narrative moments. Bob Crowley’s layers of hexagonal set pitch the three sections slightly out of line with each other, which beautifully reflects how little the three protagonists understand each other, while the whole is cut into by a lightning bolt-shaped fire escape that pierces the Wingfield’s flat and underlines Tom’s concluding speech.

The flat is surrounded by a vast black lagoon which is occasionally lit like stars in moments of hope but seeks to demonstrate the endless emptiness that surrounds all of them, like an island forever cut-off from the outside world. While it works brilliantly as metaphor, it does lose the sense of crowding and claustrophobia that tenement-living induces and is also vital to the play’s subtext. There is little sense of being surrounded by other lives here which is a shame, and the National’s recent take on The Deep Blue Sea had a more suitable solution to the block housing problem.

Nonetheless, this is a masterfully charged production of Williams’s early play, and while the style takes a little while to get used to, it soon draws you into the inner-lives of its lonely protagonists. And while in one sense it is a tiny domestic drama that affects only the four characters we see, it has a universality that is quite affecting. Everyone has lost or never achieved something they wanted, whether it is love, recognition or freedom, and Williams’s creations represent something we can all recognise. The power of this play’s characters, and the American Repertory Theatre’s excellent production, is that all of them are fragile creatures, a glass menagerie that we watch shatter in the hands of the playwright.

The Glass Menagerie is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 29 April. Tickets start at £20 but do note ATG booking fees. Day seats are available from £15 at the box office. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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