by Sion Hughes-Carew
“How many stars are you going to give it, then?” asked the breathy woman to my right at the end of the show. Embarrassed that my subtle scribblings had been observed, I muttered something ambiguous and non-committal. “Wasn’t it wonderful?” she continued. “Such a good play.” In the rush to leave, I overheard another woman describing her response to a friend: “It was so painful”, she drawled, as if reliving the pulling of a tooth. So where to begin?
The set was beautiful – faded and sunny with wicker and leather – you could almost smell the tang of the sea outside the screen door. And to begin with, of course, everything is beautiful and sunny. Seeing James and Mary embrace and giggle was truly heart-warming: there are not enough displays of affection between older couples on stage or television, and so we see it as unusual. David’s “How fat and beautiful you look!” caused giggles in the audience, but, I’ll wager, also a fuzzy feeling.
Of course this only serves to makes the ensuing slow reveal all the more tragic. As we begin to scratch beneath the surface, we discover that all is not as it seems at Monte Cristo Cottage. Mary’s concern for her son Edmund’s health is touching, until it transpires that she is fixated, and her concern part of an underlying mania. What can be causing this, we wonder? What is the significance of the spare room, to which she keeps repairing?
The rapidity with which the atmosphere shifts is both palpable and shocking. One minute the family can be discussing the mores of the neighbours quite jovially, the next snapping into a paranoid, foul-mouthed diatribe. There is an almost-permanent tension and sense of walking on eggshells while Mary is in the room. There are complex and wonderfully executed shifting patterns in the way individuals are singled out for criticism – Mary rounding on Jamie, for example, for berating his father, before she does so herself for bringing her to live in this house: “I’ve always hated this town and everyone in it.” As soon as she leaves, the tension overflows into actual aggression and fisticuffs, the dipsomaniacal tendencies of all three of the Tyrone men becoming truly evident.
It becomes clear that while James and the boys are, to varying degrees, alcoholics, and Edmund, the youngest, suffering from tuberculosis, Mary herself has her own addiction – to morphine which she has been prescribed since the death of baby Eugene, who died over 20 years before. As she says, hauntingly: “The past is the present. It’s the future, too.” In fact, the absence of Eugene and the effect that his death has had on the family makes him almost as important a character as any of the living Tyrones themselves.
Similarly, the leitmotif of the fog which slowly creeps up and surrounds the cottage during the course of the long day, seems to have a character all itself, as well, meaning different things to the characters. It “hides you from the world and the world from you”, announces Mary obliquely, and “makes everything sound so sad and lost”: the parallels with her own drug use all too obvious. Cathleen, the maid, drunkenly declares that it is good for the complexion. And Edmund, a poet, who declares himself to be “a little in love with death” confirms that “stammering is the eloquence of us fog people”.
The play is incredibly tightly-crafted. It is shocking, touching, relentless, thoroughly depressing and darkly comic all at the same time. The parts of James and Mary Tyrone are played superbly by David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf – in spite of everything, their love for one another is still discernible, though twisted and bewildered. It does not make for easy watching.
My favourite scene, predictably for one who loathes conflict, is one of the more comic moments. Having been force-fed whiskey by Mary, Cathleen is now reeling drunk. The conversation drifts back to Ireland and James’ attempts at becoming an actor. “Shakespeare was an Irish Catholic”, he proclaims angrily. “And so was Wellington.” Later, when the women have left, he climbs on the table to re-enact his most famous rôle: as Cassius in Julius Caesar. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” An apt assessment, perhaps, for a family brought low by alcohol, morphine, ambition, and not knowing the value of a dollar.
‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ is currently running at the Apollo Theatre, 31 Shaftesbury Avenue. Visit the website for more info here or call 0844 482 9671.