Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
The British premiere of Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize play, “Long Day’s Journey into Night” was staged at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in the Edinburgh Festival 1958.
As a cathartic release of private emotions, this is O’Neill’s brutally honest, autobiographical portrait of his own family: James and Mary Tyrone (based on his parents, John and Mary), their elder son, Jamie and his brother Edmund representing Eugene as a young man.
The setting is their beachfront Summer home in Connecticut, across one single day in August 1912. The living room is simply furnished – blonde oak, pale blue Shaker wood, wicker chairs, lace-clothed dining table, book case, piano and central staircase.
The action begins with an everyday scene at breakfast time. But from morning sunshine to late evening lamplight, we gradually witness the truth and tragedy within the family relationships as they delve into their individual haunted pasts.
Fussing over Edmund who has a bad cold, Mary plays the gentle, caring mother, but soon reveals an anxious, vulnerable manner. She has recently returned home from the sanatorium but is in total denial of her morphine addiction.
Tentatively watching her every move, James is unsure how to help his wife. A former successful actor, he is very much the father figure, controlling and questioning his sons. Yet he needs the crutch of whiskey to escape reality – as does Jamie, wild and wayward, who has a bitter and cynical approach to life.
Physically frail, the consumptive Edmund is a quiet intellectual with a passion for theatre and Shakespeare; he‘s a dreamer, wistfully remembering a sailing trip to South America, the freedom of the sea.
They all have their demons to fight and so the blame game begins: allegations, accusations, jealousies, smouldering anger, releasing their personal feelings as an expression of guilt and sense of failure in themselves.
The rollercoaster journey into the past for the Tyrone family is dramatised like an ocean-going voyage: waves of deep, dark emotion, moments of calm sea, stormy debate and hard hitting argument like thunderbolts.
Intimate conversational duets – James and Jamie, Mary and Edmund, James and Mary, Jamie and Edmund – are artistically staged like a series of softly lit “Hopper-esque” vignettes. Scene changing music of soft cello strings and the gradual darkening shadows of night create a tangible melancholic mood, the ebb and flow of simmering tension.
The entire cast is impeccable in capturing the multi-layered personalities, each trapped in their own fraught and fragile emotional state. Paul Shelley (a tall gentle bear of a man reminiscent of Harrison Ford), shifts with ease between dominant patriarchal figure, loving husband and desperate alcoholic drinker.
With graceful elegance, Diana Kent as Mary glides across the stage perpetually distracted in a world of her own – we feel her inner torment; kissing her crucifix pendant, she realises the loss of her comforting Catholic Faith.
A recent Royal Conservatoire graduate, Timothy N. Evers is pitch perfect as the troubled, tortured soul, Edmund, relating his travel tales with poetic precision and pace. Adam Best portrays the boorish, hard drinking Jamie with a subtle mask of self-pity to try and regain his family’s respect.
If there any quibbles, sight lines are poor if sitting in the far right hand stalls, (e.g. F 4 nd 5), obstructing views of the staircase and a window, at which Mary often stands staring out to sea.
Fog is a recurring theme, both the actual weather slowly permeating the porch outside, but also symbolising the isolation and loneliness they all feel. The fog could perhaps have been used for more dramatic effect with a drowning cloud of dry-ice to envelop this Summer house of despair – this family home of enduring love.
Poignant, profound, engrossing, this is an exquisitely choreographed production by Tony Cownie. The audience watched and observed the Tyrone family in utter silence, drawn into their complex lives and heartfelt memories.
Fifty six years after its first performance on the same stage, this is a gracefully cool and classy revival of a classic American masterpiece.
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 17 January – 8 February, 2014