“None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.”
In seven days time, I will have seen Cate Blanchett onstage at the Barbican and this is something that I am inordinately excited about and I’ll probably nominate her for a Best Actress fosterIAN for just simply being Cate Blanchett no matter how the show is. But in watching Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which has arrived at the Apollo theatre after a short UK tour, I was witness to my first cast-iron certainty for a nomination this year. Indeed, I might go as far to say that Laurie Metcalf’s extraordinary performance as Mary Tyrone is one of the greatest feats of acting I think I’ve ever seen.
The play is a portrait of a deeply troubled and traumatised Irish-American family, its four acts taking place over the length of a single day, during which lifetimes of regrets, recriminations and rancour are revealed and rehashed. Mary has just returned from a stay at the sanatorium to deal with her morphine addiction yet remains in a delicate state; her husband James is an actor whose potential has wasted away and who zealously guards the money he has earned. He has placed his hopes and dreams in his two sons but is frustrated by their lack of ambition, something underpinned by a familial tendency to alcohol abuse, and blame swirls increasingly dangerously around the drawing room.
The acting is outstanding across the board here, but Metcalf truly is incredible, her delivery and phrasing simply exceptional. It’s like watching water in a mountain stream: always moving, sometimes quick, sometimes steady, sometimes swirling intensely in eddies or caught off guard by counter-currents. There’s a silvery lightness to her as her morphine-befuddled mind sets her off on winding meanderings, a terrible fragility paired with the inexorable rush towards oblivion that is just heart-breaking to watch yet utterly, utterly compelling.
With such a creature in their midst, it is then unsurprising that there’s a certain element of breath-holding from the men around her – tiptoeing around the eggshells in the room, aware that the slightest thing could tip Mary’s equilibrium off the wrong way. So it’s quite a clever move of O’Neill’s to dispatch her to the bedroom for the majority of the second half to allow the full force of the male Tyrones to explode. And what explosions!
Almost matching Metcalf for intensity, the confrontation between David Suchet’s grizzled patriarch and the youngest son, the consumptive Edmund played with hacking resignation by Kyle Soller, is electric. Soller does an extremely good line in being crumpled by the words of those around him and Suchet’s timing is as ever impeccable. The crushed dreams and disillusionment of both men emerge with poetic grace, even through or even heightened by the whiskey-fuelled fog, and if the disappointment in Trevor White’s elder son Jamie is more palpable yet less explored, the frustrated sibling relationship that transpires is devastatingly portrayed.
The simple wood-panelled New England summer-house set by Lez Brotherson entraps the family with even the escape route onto the veranda blocked by the oppressive fog and it is no accident that the drinks table with its ever-flowing decanter of whiskey takes centre-place. Indeed, Anthony Page’s direction is inspired throughout: the ‘drunk’ acting is wisely kept rather low-key – these are functioning alcoholics after all – and he composes several images onstage that sear onto the mind: the son clinging onto the father as he reaches for the light, the wild-haired mother desperately trying to hide herself whilst her family look on appalled – the corrosive effects of addictions of all kinds are laid horrifically bare.
Post-show reading revealed that there are strong elements of autobiography in O’Neill’s writing, so much so that after completing the play, he ordered it be locked away and not performed until 25 years after his death. In the event, it took three years for his widow to break his wishes, but in doing so she revealed to the world an astonishingly powerful piece of drama that truly speaks from the pained heart. And given this treatment here, it is hard to imagine it could possibly be bettered. I felt emotionally bruised and battered as I left the theatre, and was glad for the spotting rain to disguise the odd tear, yet strangely uplifted at the sheer life-affirming quality of the theatre to which I had just borne witness –an all-time great.