The Review: Bristol Old Vic/BAM’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night
As the night in question approaches, the Tyron family at the center of this very long journey shuffles forward through the pain and accusations that weight these four down throughout their lifetime. It’s the same old game for this family, oppressed from the beginning of their attachment, rooted in a historically twisted engagement that started decades earlier. The play is essentially an autobiographical play by American playwright Eugene O’Neill that many consider his masterpiece. “The past is the present, and the future too” and there is no denying it as their descent is clear from the first time these four enter. There is a glimmer of escape ahead, but it is as dark and deadly as the foreboding fog that shroud the family’s summer home, that is not a home to Mary. It’s wrapped in alcohol and morphine to numb the pain, useless, almost, for them to talk it out, but they can’t help themselves, so they talk and talk and talk all afternoon and into the late hours of the night, rehashing and revealing moments of their personal stories of narcissistic greatness and the fall from grace. There’s a lovely moment of real ness from Jessica Regan’s funny turn as Cathleen the maid, but everyone else is mired in darkness and despair. Mary, played with a nervous high-strung anger and fear by the formidable Lesley Manville (Almeida Theatre/West End/BAM’s Ghosts) wants them all to stop staring at her, but we can’t abide by that directive, we must watch, as this family expresses years worth of blame and resentments over the course of this 3 1/2 hours. We watch in horror and sadness, but as the minutes are made worse by their brutal honesty and pathetic self-analysis, the play totters on the edge of disaster, daring us to look away, down to our watches, and hope for the final monologue to come.
Their energy is lively, at the beginning, post breakfast, as the four talk on and over one another like any family does. It feels new and fresh in these first few scenes, filling us with a hope that this production, directed by the acclaimed Sir Richard Eyre (Royal Court’s Edmond) will find new life in O’Neill’s magnum opus. The play, even when superbly done, like last season’s Roundabout production starring Jessica Lange can succumb to boring repetition, as they repeat and repeat the same rounds of attacks on one another. It’s a deafening game, attack and retreat, leaving them all tired of the hearing the same old from each other. We can relate. They simultaneously also want to protect and show affection when opportunities present themselves; when they are feeling insecure and in need. And that insecurity happens often. They need each other even when attacking.
The incomparable Jeremy Irons, the esteemed film actor of such films as “M. Butterfly” and “Lolita” has returned to the stage to play the famed stage actor and head of the Tyron family, James Tyron who lords over his wife, Mary, and his two sons, Edmund, played wobbly by the engaging Matthew Beard (West End/Broadway’s Skylight) and James Jr., played endearingly by Rory Keenan (NT’s Liola, Damned by Despair). Iron is a magnificent sight and sound to behold. His rich voice is as effervescent and unique as ever, thrilling us all to hear, and his stature has not diminished one bit, filling the space and diving into this difficult character with relish. He’s a miser and a grand stander, needing to be the star player in this family of four, pushing them all done while needing them to look up at him admiringly.
Contempt and disgust, in general, is not good company to keep, as they say, and in this odd glass house that set and costume designer, Rob Howell (West End/Broadway’s Matilda the Musical) has built for this family, all the dragging down of one another is on full view. There’s no hiding in the shadows here. It’s a showy piece of theatrical building, something that didn’t entirely fit with Mary’s often mentioned feeling of the heaviness of this house bearing down upon her. Mary does wander and fly through the space like a well dressed ghost in white, wrapped forever in her fantastical past, wishing for escape from the present and the possible future. Mansville is magnificent as she shifts from attacks to needed retreats against all, but especially when Irons and her dive into the dysfunction of Mary and James’ marriage do we see two great actors working magic with some impressively telling dialogue. They jab and shift from the negative to the positive, thrusting outward and inward blame on each other and lobbing accusations to inflict wounds within moments of some kindness. This kind of love is painful to watch, although they are equals in this game, and both are to blame.
The two sons, although not as compelling as the two leads, do a fine job finding the little jig in their step and the humor in their rants. There is a beautifully choreographed moment when Mary shifts from happy to blame mode against her sick son, Edmund, and his head falls back as if punched for the thousandth time. It speaks volumes to the parenting these two sons have had to live through, the self obsessed disengagement of parents more concerned with money and their own position of power and sway. Mary speaks constantly about caring for and wanting to baby her sick son, but does little to actually sooth or help, pouring him one more shot, not because it will do him any good, but as everyone in this family thinks, the booze will subdue the recriminations they all feel being thrown at one another as if they all are trying to find that same place that Brick waits for in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, that click that will make everything feel numb and bearable.
The four lumber forward, each getting their moment in the spotlight to illuminate their pathetic and self-defeating mindsets, fluctuating between moments of tenderness and affection with resentments and outwardly hostile blame. The moments are staggering and generally authentically delivered, but the minutes start to feel like hours, and I can’t help but secretly hold my breath waiting for Mary to reenter and give her final monologue, signaling the end. This time, with oddly artificial lighting by Peter Mumford (West End’s The Ferryman), and a solid sound design by John Leonard (Old Vic’s Mood Music), Mary is bathed in a spotlight while the others fade away into the foggy darkness. She is lost in that light, drifting away probably never to return again, and even as we sit within that doomed and slightly artificial moment, we can’t help but fear for that lost soul, while also, secretly, celebrating the final moments, knowing we will be able to escape into our Brooklyn night. It’s a long evening’s journey to get through with this piece, even with it being performed masterfully. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I needed another visit to the Tyron family when I first arrived at BAM, and now I know for sure that I won’t be visiting them again anytime soon.