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Theatre - William Cook. Long Day's Journey Into Night

Pursuits | By William Cook

A Scot in New England: Brian Cox in Long Day’s Journey into Night




Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until 8th June

Brian Cox was born to play James Tyrone, the angry patriarch in Eugene O’Neill’s greatest play. Like Logan Roy, whom Cox played so well in the hit TV series Succession, Tyrone is a geriatric tyrant, furious that his feckless children haven’t inherited his will to win.

In Succession, Cox played a wealthy tycoon, ruling over a vast media empire. Here he plays a washed-up actor, stuck in a creaky old house in Connecticut. Yet, despite their contrasting fortunes, these characters are kindred spirits – modern King Lears, both raging against the dying of the light.

Cox is a stage actor of tremendous power and subtlety. How good to see him back where he belongs, in the West End, in a classic play.

O’Neill wrote Long Day’s Journey into Night in 1941 – ‘A play of old sorrow,’ as he described it, ‘written in tears and blood.’

He then put it aside, and decreed that it shouldn’t be performed until 25 years after his death. In spite of this, in 1956, three years after he died, his widow permitted a world première in Stockholm, where it was an instant hit, earning comparisons to O’Neill’s Scandinavian idols, Strindberg and Ibsen.

Why didn’t O’Neill want his peerless masterpiece to be performed during his lifetime, or for a generation after? Because its intimate, painful subject matter was almost entirely autobiographical.

Like James Tyrone, O’Neill’s own father (also called James) was a gifted actor who succumbed to drink and traded his talent for commercial success.

Like Tyrone’s wife, Mary, O’Neill’s mother (also called Mary) became hooked on morphine. Like the Tyrones’ eldest son, Jamie, O’Neill’s elder brother (also called Jamie) was an alcoholic. And, like the Tyrones’ younger son, Edmund, Eugene was stricken with tuberculosis.

Knowing that O’Neill’s script mirrors his early life so closely adds an extra layer of interest to this intense, traumatic play. Still, Long Day’s Journey into Night is such a heartfelt, heart-rending piece of theatre that you could watch it without knowing anything about O’Neill or the background to his magnum opus, and still be transfixed.

As the title of the play implies, the action takes place on a single day – the day Edmund learns he has TB and must enter a sanatorium (the year is 1912, the year that O’Neill contracted TB). For O’Neill, TB was an epiphany, a brush with death after years of drifting, which gave him his vocation. He started writing plays in the sanatorium and never looked back.

Yet for the characters in this play, there’s no such consolation or salvation. Edmund has a 50-50 chance of dying, and his family all know it. This dreadful revelation unlocks their own shameful secrets: the manic dipsomania of the men and Mary’s opium addiction.

Watching these miserable addicts trading accusations and recriminations sounds like a bleak way to spend an evening but, like all great theatrical tragedies, this is an exhilarating play.

Emboldened by booze, these characters tell one other exactly what they think of each other. It’s like eavesdropping on a violent domestic quarrel. You can’t tear your eyes away.

It’s a shame this rendition is hobbled by some peculiar casting and directing, depriving Cox of the premier-league production his towering performance deserves. Daryl McCormack and Laurie Kynaston are fine actors, but I found them far too hale and hearty for these roles. I struggled to believe that McCormack’s lithe, athletic Jamie was a hopeless soak, or that Kynaston’s boyish, fresh-faced Edmund was suffering from a deadly disease.

Patricia Clarkson is suitably spaced-out as their helpless, haunted mother, lurching between inertia and hysteria, ‘as lonely as a dirty room in a one-night-stand hotel’. Her considered interpretation is rather undermined by Jeremy Herrin’s direction, which is lively, but frequently too light and jolly.

Actors are inclined to look for laughs, but there’s really nothing remotely funny about these trapped and tortured characters. Grim stuff? Of course. But that’s the play O’Neill wrote and there’s no other way it should be played.

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As O’Neill observes in this ruthless, timeless tragedy, the past is never passed. It’s the present, and the future, too.

This story was from May 2024 issue. Subscribe Now