Long Day’s Journey into the Night is a punishing play. Even this stripped-back production – a mere three and a half hours! – wears you down with wave after wave of hand-wringing and turmoil. It’s a study of disappointment, of squandered potential, of trying to muddle on even though things are bad and will inevitably get worse.
Eugene O’Neill’s 1941 play is heavily autobiographical, drawing inspiration from his drug-addict mother, wildly successful actor father, and his own tuberculosis (it’s so personal he demanded it not be performed until 25 years after his death, although this wasn’t adhered to). Set in a Connecticut summerhouse, it opens with a scene of apparent familial bliss; irascible old rogue James (Jeremy Irons) showers his wife Mary (Lesley Manville) with kisses, complimenting her on getting fat while their two dishevelled sons roll their eyes in mock disgust.
But sadness engulfs every one of them: James laments selling out his potential as an actor for the big bucks of a long-running, artistically bankrupt production; Mary takes morphine to dull the pain of losing a child; elder son James Jr (Rory Keenan) retreats into alcohol and prostitutes, while the younger, Edmund (Matthew Beard), reads Voltaire and Baudelaire and flirts with suicide.
Mercifully, former National Theatre director Richard Eyre brings the play’s desperate humour to the fore, with James Jr performing drunken little jigs, and the cheap Irish maid played for some well-needed laughs. It’s Manville, though – recently nominated for an Oscar for the excellent Phantom Thread – who makes this such a mesmerising production, her character appearing to physically shrink as the poison takes hold, her sadness penetrating even the fuzzy bliss of her heroin fug.
It’s a wonderfully rich play, laden with symbolism. Outside the glass box of their shabby summer house, fog rolls in until it engulfs them, cutting them off, with the low drone of a foghorn an ever-present reminder of the outside world. “It won’t let you alone,” says Mary. “It keeps reminding you, and warning you, and calling you back”. Rob Howell’s set, all impossible angles, is dominated by an absurdly large bookcase that towers 30 feet in the air, as if the family has stepped through the looking glass. As the play progresses and the day turns to night, the stage gets darker and smaller, until each character is trapped in their little own puddle of light.
It’s a brilliant production of one of the great American plays, one that leaves you stunned, winded and unable to feel your buttocks.