Onstage the whiskey bottle is once again being shunted back-and-forth, its level of liquid steadily dropping as each character takes a desperate swig. Round and round the bottle goes, from mouth-to-mouth, acting almost as a barometer for the play’s tragic family woes. Occasionally, its level is surreptitiously topped up with water as each character attempts to conceal their drinking from one another. Pointless, really, as they all know they’re a bunch of dysfunctional alcoholics. It’s as depressing as watching Macbeth’s three witches struggle with their one, pathetic eyeball. But the intensity is such that it wouldn’t be amiss to say half the audience could do with a drop of the strong stuff themselves.
As the whiskey level ebbs and flows so, too, does the audience’s overall happiness levels. Here we are, deep in the middle of Anthony Page’s powerhouse production of Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night, and the barrage of accusations, counter-accusations and lies is at full throttle. Written in “tears and blood” (the playwright’s own rather forceful choice of words, not mine), this play was always going to be a tricky one to watch. Let’s put it this way: you don’t book tickets to see O’Neill if a night of light entertainment is what you’re after. No, this is raw, high-voltage drama that surges with heartfelt loneliness, human misunderstanding, and cruel self-deception. Steadily charting the Tyrone family’s downward spiral into despair, deceit and addiction (itself modelled on O’Neill’s own troubled relationship with his thespian father and drug-addled mother), the play takes place over the course of one day in summer 1912. As the relentless pea soup fog thickly swirls outside, we watch as the family play out their past failures, present miseries, and deep-seated resentment in their cramped living room. James Tyrone, the miserly patriarch, is played brilliantly by David Suchet - a commanding presence on the stage that arguably glues the entire production together. Tyrone is a selfish old miser who jacked in a promising career on the stage to earn big bucks as a proprietor and thereby support his wife and two young kids. But his penny-pinching, selfish, alcoholic ways drive his wife to morphine addiction for the birth of their youngest son - a tragic error that ultimately drives their two disappointing sons (one a selfish alcoholic, the other a rootless consumptive) into self-destruction and despair. Suchet is simply spot-on as the ageing patriarch, delivering his lines with a quiet authority and pitch-perfect Irish lilt. One minute, he’s a raving, disappointed tyrant, the next a remorseful, even tender family man. At one memorable point, there’s even a brief glimmer of the actor Tyrone could have been as Suchet stands, in a moment of drunken delusion, atop the living room table, perfectly illuminated by the living room light, and delivers the poignant line, “I could have been a great Shakespearean”. And this is exactly how Suchet plays him: it’s powerful, precise, restrained. In short, Shakespearean.
Instead it is Mary Tyrone, in the text surely the tragic victim, that here seems to be portrayed as the true villain of the piece. Laurie Metcalfe, an American actress last seen on the West End stage in All My Sons, is an unsparing and unsentimental Mary: from the very first, she pours paranoid accusations onto her tenderly loving husband and worried sons, a manipulative, unstable woman deep in the unforgiving throes of going cold turkey. As the play progresses, her relapse into morphine is terrifyingly rapid - and she becomes a poisonous, deranged woman trailing around the house with her old wedding gown like some sort of granny Ophelia. Can you blame her, though, when the morphine delivers her into the hands of the past - the tragedy of a dead baby son and a lonely life on the road with her husband that she never even wanted. “The past is the present” says Mary, and yet when these memories are so tainted with resentment, it’s no wonder poor Mary wants to drag the whole family down into her fog. It’s a persuasive performance and definitely frenzied - but, at times, Metcalfe goes overboard, rapidly rattling off her lines at such manic speed, it was hard to hear her.
To call this play hard-going wouldn’t be enough: O’Neill takes his depiction of human weakness and addiction to the furthest extreme and lets his audience descend into madness alongside his poor protagonists. It’s all the more tragic when you consider the play’s personal overtones - James Tyrone is a barely concealed version of O’Neill’s own cruel thespian father, and two of O’Neill’s sons committed suicide from alcoholism and drug addiction. The consumptive youngest son, Edmund Tyrone, is meant to be O’Neill himself: an itinerant writer struggling against the difficulties of his tragic life. Throw in the swirling fog, the persistent cry of the foghorn, and that bottle of whiskey, and you have yourself a compelling and high-voltage drama. Sure, there are the odd bright moments of humour to keep the audience’s flame alight, but ultimately this is a slow dance through one family’s tragedy. And, as the final curtain drops, you’ll find yourself wondering what the Tyrones ultimately learn from their day of suffering (that’s 3 long hours you’ll never get back). I emerged from the theatre feeling slightly crazed, my nerves slightly shredded. The play’s title really works: it truly does feel like you’ve endured the longest day’s journey into night.