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