Sunday, August 1, 2010

Long Day's Journey Into Night

Sydney Theatre Company in association with Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland present LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT by Eugene O'Neill at the Sydney Theatre.

LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT by Eugene O'Neill is claimed, by some, to be the great American play, and certainly from my engagement with this play many times in the theatre and in the cinematic form with Katherine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson (reduced as it is), the affect has always inclined me to think so. This long naturalistic work winding through one day into the night with this Irish-American family, the Tyrone's, in late summer, August,
1912, has had the transfixing fascination of the rawness of the recognition of the human condition in the common experience for us all, of the family and it's formative hold on us.

Written in 1941 but published posthumously this great work was dedicated to Mr O'Neill's wife, Carlotta.

For Carlotta, on our 12th Wedding Anniversary.
Dearest: I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a day celebrating happiness. But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play - write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones.
These twelve years, Beloved One,have been a Journey into Light - into love. You know my gratitude. And my love!

Tao House
July 22, 1941

It seems to me that the tears and blood of this unashamedly autobiographical play can wring recognising echoes in me and despite the pain, it, too, can lead me through a long journey into light - into love. My own mother, father and siblings always arise in my consciousness. Deep reflection and pondering of them are the consequences of this experience and they seem closer after this journey, and I hope that they can pity, understand and forgive me, as well (I am of Irish-Australian descent).

The play is long. It is, indeed a long day's journey into night. It's length, of course, is it's major strength and for full authorial power ought to be respected.

I came to this production late in the season. The word of mouth was mixed and I attended with some trepidation. All in all the long length, I was still engrossed in the play but for the first time not moved by the ultimate entry of the haunted and haunting Mary. Strangely, it was a distanced observation, an intellectual summary of the tragedy of a family.

However, the interesting thing for me was the stylistic differences that the American participators brought to the work that was so contrasted with the Australian artists.

On the night I attended, the performance of William Hurt was magnificent (give or take some blurring consonants and smudged articulation) and the long remembrance and explanation of Tyrone's family history in the long Act Four duo with Edmund (Luke Mullins) was as moving and humanly revelatory as any I have had in the theatre. There then followed the cauterising ramblings of Jamie (Todd Van Voris), and the compassionate identification that the actor brought to the text was scouring and painful in it's raw expression and affect. These two men knew Tyrone senior and Jamie as well as they know their own family. Indeed, my impression was that these two actors brought an endowment of personal knowledge and were playing their 'cultural' grandparents. Relatives. Relatives of the great American family and they demonstrated a needful gesture in exercising and exorcising these creations of Mr O'Neill. The impact brought to mind the climactic moments in two other American family tragedies DEATH OF A SALESMAN and WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
On the other hand, Ms Nevin's performance, as Mary, was brilliantly detailed in it's 'theatrical' offers, the disintergration of the woman during this long painful day and the re-embracement with her addiction was calculated in all of its external expressions with the keen eye of a craftsman and the forensic eye of a scientist/doctor. The petty and venal obsessions of the wrecked woman compulsively harping over the mean and cheap life that she believes her husband has given her, the focused chief motivation for her situation, highlighted compulsively by Ms Nevin. The grief of the loss of the child, Eugene, did not seem to motivate her dilemma a quarter as much. The cruelty to her Edmund not acknowledged except as a self justification for her tragic later choices in life. Self-centered and toweringly isolated from the family. Calculated and cool, manipulative and now irretrievably lost. It missed the real inner ache and pain and the warmth of a romantic would be nun, later infatuated girl, disillusioned woman and grieving mother. The outer pain of the arthritis and self-dramatised humiliating house surroundings more motivating than maybe the emotional woundings of her own human weaknesses, life experiences and the deep centred causes.

Mr Mullins as Edmund seemed ill at ease and pursued the 'concept' of a misunderstood poet and presented a generalised fey sense of the life experience of a shipman and hard core drinker. It was an intellectual conceptualisation with no real experiencing of the great emotional journey. Presented not suffered. Presnted not truly felt. Not truly engaged or connected to the rest of the family. Physically the work seemed disengaged from the authentic body of the 'adventurer' Edmund demanded of himself. It was difficult to experience as an audience the high spots of his sea memories but as self-conscious poetic meanderings of an actor of life - a pretender.

Concept of the characterisations rather than the actual identification of the deep flesh and blood, heart and soul of the Tyrone family seemed to define the Australian actors commitment to these great dramatic figures of naturalistic examination that was looking for understanding and forgiveness. Looking and giving objectified judgements of these 'cultural' types? Ms Nevin and Mr Mullins failed to engage my empathy and asked rather that I observe and judge these people as pathetic. The deepening journey of this family into the claustrophobia of the fog and the family's heart of darkness was spread, finally, across the stage in unconnected modules and left barely breathing or alive, relatively, on a gurney in an autopsy room.

Surely Mr Upton is too blame?

The alarming misconception of this production, however, must be the intellectual intrusions that the Director (Andrew Upton) and perforce his Designer (Michael Scott -Mitchell) seemed to impose on this play. Both these artists seemed to deem it necessary that their mark be brought to the consciousness of the audience. This was not a production with five artists/actors (Emily Russell as Cathleen) but of seven contributing active performers: the Designer and the Director partaking in the action of the play.

In the detailed directions of Mr O'Neill, he conjures for the setting to nurture his family to life, a description of an authentic summer cottage of the period. Loving and telling details of the house interior are described. Books and bookshelves of great literature encase the furniture and the family that move and sit here. The house as a living organism, well used and fading, with an unused chandelier above a table surrounded by four chairs, 'three of them wicker armchairs, the fourth (at right end of the table) a varnished oak rocker with leather bottom."

The play begins in morning sunshine at 8.30am.The second act has no direct light but a haziness. The third act has "an early dusk, due to the fog which has rolled in from the Sound and is like a white curtain drawn down outside the windows." The fourth act is around midnight only the reading light in the living room is lighted." Outside the windows the walls of fog appears denser than ever." It seems to me that the writer is closing in the room to a claustrophobic choke - from bright day to a 'gothic' night.

Mr Scott-Mitchell, rather, has a set of dirty grey
abstraction/constructivist shapes jutting across the horizon of the set, extending in a declining angle from left to right, deep into the wings of the stage space with a token three window wall facing us on the left, with a dominating painted wall papered wing wall on the side. The furniture is reduced to a small table and two chairs (four actors onstage talking a lot, hmmm, two of them left to, directorially intentionally, move about the space like dodgem cars avoiding collisions) no books, and a theatre ghost light (metaphor?) with walls that progressively, from act to act, expand the space, until ultimately, spaciously, it is full size(!)- a veritable football field (?). This long day's journey's night rather than closing in, opens up. The lighting similarly brightens up. Conclusively the designer and the director has us looking at a family spread across the space, each isolated and able to be scrutinized in the clear light of day - instead of gloom and fog- the intellectual intrusion of these choices are coolers for the emotional impact and sentiment of the play, altogether. You are definitely in a theatre and observing, not lost in an imaginative world where you have suspended disbelief and are emotionally identifying and endowing the action of the events of the long day's journey into night.

This has already been clearly signalled from the moment of entering the space of the auditorium, because the framing proscenium arch is painted ochre-red in clear contrast to the grey-blues of most of the rest of the set. Proscenium arch=theatre!! Even more occularly deliberate is, along with the expanding walls, the skewing of the arch during the act changes, that finally is set at a significant angle to the audience.

We are watching a play says Mr Scott-Mitchell, in cahoots no doubt with Mr Upton. This is a theatre not real life. This is not naturalism, this is what? Meyerholdism? Postmodernism, the death-of-the-humanist-subject....? Even in the program notes there is no elucidation of the director's intentions stylistically, just an interview titled 'HEAVENLY DAYS' that is 'hazy' in what it is saying, and other poetry quotes from Nietzsche, Auden, and Shelley (Ozymandias !!) ? What, another drug-induced dream??? Certainly no clarity of Mr Upton's intentions in serving the writer or interpreting the play for an Australian audience in this way in 2010.

For worse, Mr Upton then directs the actors around this virtually chairless and expanding set space without any real textual clarity. Movement often for movements sake (a movement Advisor is credited: John Bolton) or sometimes it seems, actors just trying to find some way of surviving as focus points of character for the storytelling - trying to maintain some kind of narrative and character clarity for the audience. None of it serving much intentional tension in unfolding Mr O'Neill. Mr Upton and Mr Scott-Mitchell are two artists who refuse to be invisible supporters or clarifiers to the writers intentions but rather active participators in every moment of a play of their own devising.

Instead of the coaxing talent of the designer to create and conjure the world of Mr O'Neill, to draw us into an imaginative reality and atmosphere — we have statements of thoughts/interpretations from Mr Scott -Mitchell, that often intrude and obfuscate the intention of the writer.

Instead of a Director intent on drawing performances from the actors to reveal the life of Mr O'Neill's play and characters, and drawing us into a subjective identification with the naturalistic intentions, we find ourselves dealing with puzzling and inconsistent directorial choices that reveal the backstage areas, progressively wider and wider, with the actors resting in full view; we have the fourth wall window in act one (first half of the production) with the characters viewing the garden through what seems to be an enormous window and have the actors go out to the hedge in front but vocally throw their lines from the upstage and backstage wings- no theatrical logic at work here. We have even the exit and re-entrance of one of the characters into the body of the house supposedly into the same garden area. Alert, alert you are in a theatre: Look the actor is in our dimension, in our emotional space, in our real time, So how does this enhance the experience of this great play? Not much. The fact that the play survives is a mark of its greatness. Mr Max Lyandvert's sound is surely a positive contributor as is the Costume design of Tess Schofield. Nick Schlieper works within the demands of the director and designer shiningly, as usual.

Eugene O'Neill was born in New York City in 1888 and died in Boston in 1953.he studied at Princeton and Harvard; in 1926 he received an Honorary degree from Yale. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1920,1922,1928 and 1957-the first ever granted posthumously and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936.
Someday, Australia may see some of the other work: THE ICEMAN COMETH or the family comedy, AH,WILDERNESS!

More American work with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY coming up next. All Americans doing all Americans. We shall see, Eh?


Anonymous said...

I, too, saw this play late in its run - the last week, I was on the whole disappointed. Sitting in the middle of the fifth row of the balcony, I lost at least half of the words of both Mr Hurt and Mr Mullins (whose age I don't know, but he seemed too young and too inexperienced, both as actor and as character, to play the role; perverse casting). I heard every word of the other three. I had heard that the production was miked: if so, and I believe it was, the inaudibility is unforgivable.

I liked Ms Nevin's performance a good deal, and was moved by it. The same goes for both Mr Van Voris, an actor in the style of Philip Seymour Hoffman (considerable praise) and for Ms Russell's maid. The scene between mistress and maid - in reality, mother and daughter - was one of the most engaging in the play.

My overall impression, however, is of a wilfully perverse production. Aspiring directors need to know that there are very few who can put their own stamp on a play without damaging it, and fewer indeed who, in doing so, illuminate it, or even add to it. I'm afraid that this production belongs to the school of 'what-can-I-do-with-this-pile-of-crap'. Barrie Kosky has much to answer for (but when he brings it off, I forgive much). They also need to know that when the design, or any aspect of design, fails, it is always the fault of the director, not of the designer/s. This was a production of which Mr Upton seemed to be saying, 'See what an up-to-date and postmodern director I am - or can be'.

To a few specifics:

In a play with little physical action, O'Neill stipulates that the older Tyrone, in a fit of miserliness, gets up on the table and unscrews one of the light bulbs. (Laurence Olivier's jump down in the National Theatre production has entered theatrical history: the video - which I have not seen - was on sale in the foyer.) What on earth is the point of eliminating this? I am astonished that Mr Hurt connived at it. And I could see no diminution of lighting at this point - he gazed upwards at where the ceiling might have been, and that was it, the intensity of the one onstage light unchanged

O'Neill stipulates a staircase: in the last action of the play, Mary descends it, carrying her wedding dress. I cannot help but think that Ms Nevin would have welcomed this. The descent isolates Mary, whereas in this production she had to move through the others as if oblivious of them.

I have visited the actual O'Neill house in Connecticut, in which the play is set. Its oppression is woven into the text - and into the film, as I remember The irony is that, had the production given us the naturalistic box set that O'Neill asks for, and had it been made substantially of wood, the consequent reinforcement of sound might have obviated the need for miking in a theatre of notoriously difficult acoustic.

For those of us that go to the theatre for the acting, this was a mixed bag. It is perverse to put a play that depends almost entirely on the quality of the perfomances in the hands of a director who is not an actor. Rare indeed is the director that has never acted who can help an actor to a performance (and aspiring directors need to know that, too.)

A footnote: I have seen Ms Nevin three times in the last eighteen or so months - August: Osage County; The Year of Miraculous Thinking; and this (I missed a fourth). All were wonderful performances, and at least two were great. It is an immense pity that the MTC production of August (unseen by the STC's artistic management, apparently) will not be seen in Sydney, as it had the strongest cast and the best ensemble acting that I have ever seen in an Australian production.

Anonymous said...

I saw the last performance of the play. Night had well and truly fallen. To say I was disappointed is understatement. Where was the claustrophobic intensity of a family imploding on itself? Certainly not in the avant gard set, which no doubt looked good for photographs, but managed to place the play in a sterile expanse of nothingness.

No wonder the actors were unable to relate to each other as they wandered around a sparse Stonehenge where foghorns felt quite out of place. I agree with Mr Jackson that, like the dodgems, my interest was only aroused at the point of collision or near miss.

There was none of the tension one would expect where persons with their own hangups try to come to terms with an addiction, not of just any family member, but of the undoubtedly much loved mother.

William Hurt was underwhelming, unfortunately directed to spend a lot of time looking at the ceiling, without adressing the essential meanness of character that is his undoing. Robin Nevin's character was over dramatised and left me lacking any sympathy for her terrible plight. Todd van Voris was physically wrong for the part and I certainly did not see any Phillip Seymour Hoffman in his performance. As a drunk he was unconvincing. Luke Mullins lacked the consumptive, alcoholic, far travelled mien of Edmund, which may be due to lack of experience. The maid provided unwanted comic relief and was also not a physical match with other players.

A number of people did not return after interval, and that was understandable. The performances never grabbed me with the intensity the script demands. At the end of the day it was a fairly bland offering and something unworthy of the STC.

Whilst not expecting Ralph Richardson, Katherine Hepburn, Jason Robards or Dean Stockwell I was hoping for something a lot better than what I got.

One problem with a minimalist set is that it concentrates attention on the actors and unfortunately the actors could not overcome the spatial desert they were inflicted with as well as the unchallenging level of direction.

John said...

My first experience of "Long Day's Journey" came in the mid-70s , when the National Theatre's production , starring Laurence Olivier, was screened in its entirety by one of the networks ( a commercial network? Maybe...Olivier had not much earlier won an Oscar nomination for the popular film "Sleuth").The century's most famous Shakespearean embraced the role of matinee idol James Tyrone and left lasting impressions of the character's innate theatricality and hard-shelled meanness. A superb cast had been assembled:Constance Cummings as Mary - fragile as fine china; Dennis Quilley as Jamie - vivacity and rage bursting from his veins in boozy , gushing streams ; and Ronald Pickup as Edmund -body collapsing , his face a mask of cynical relish.
The big surprise at the Sydney Theatre was how absorbing the performance was, notwithstanding all that one had heard (especially about what one couldn't hear!), and even when that old devil fog threatened to envelop the whole enterprise. As you say , Kevin, the actors got no help from the bizarre set. The Tyrone family appeared to live on a yet-to-be hung gallery of the New York Guggenheim ; or perhaps they had camped under an expressway. The gaps in the Tyrone house walls - allowing clear , leisurely views of actors waiting to make their entrances - took the focus away from the drama. Mary tells us often enough that this has 'never been a real home'; perhaps this motivated an experiment in abstract staging - a mere two chairs, a table and no-frills lamp as furnishings. But with so much empty space the actors tended to look at a loss , as to how to make themselves at home.
William Hurt did not quite convince as the grand hammy actor ; when he quoted from the Bard , his bravura was a little small in scale. But he created a vivid picture of a man in turmoil. In his peak moments of self-justification his words were like unstoppable bullet trains hurtling round this barren landscape, and we saw his face contorted in blind , wincing fury. He brought a very personal cadence and rhythmic pattern to his lines, and a sweet tenderness to his first moments with Mary, that suggested the golden thread that had once stitched the fabric of their lives.
In regard to Robyn Nevin's performance I did not note that discrepancy which you , Kevin, perceived between the American and Australian cast members. On the contrary , each time she entered, I felt that we were in safe hands.Every word was clear , as she shifted from girlish neediness to nostalgic reminiscences to secret loathing of being disturbed. The part has two precious scenes: the victim's credo ("no-one can help the things that life has done to them") and the final memory of falling in love with James Tyrone. In the former Ms Nevin was spellbinding , but the staging of the latter was messy ; she was not properly the focus of attention as it began , and it was over before we could take it in.
I share the conviction , that from this Mary one had a stronger sense of the anguish at all that had been given up rather than fear over the fate of her son.
Did Luke Mullens draw the play's longest
straw? Edmund's Act IV rhapsody on the joy of life on the open seas is so full of briney blarney that it might defeat any actor; certainly it failed to catch the wind here. Whilst both Mr Mullens and Todd Van Voris have impressive vocal skills , their performances were often physically restrained -almost reticent.
How far from the contemporary outlook is the worldview of "Long Day's Journey"! These days prophets of self-transformation encourage us to drop the mantle of victimhood and take responsibility for our lives. No-one need be lost irretrievably; believe in yourself , in your power to change and you , too, can triumph over alcoholism , drug addiction and even serial meanness.
Scratch a blighted Tyrone and you will hear a defensive 'I can't help myself , it all can't be helped'.
Go tell Oprah....

Michael said...

Great to see some genuine critical analysis of this production, which I saw during the first week of the season. Hurt was under-directed (out of some kind of fealty is my guess) and on the back foot all the time. Nevin stole the show from him, but only because his Tyrone was weak. There was nothing mysterious about it. He lost every scene in the way that a reticent actor always will. O'Neill did not write a reticent Tyrone. As new generations of actors take on "great roles" the job is not simply to find something new in fixed material, but keep it alive when it's your turn to fill those shoes. Nevin understands this, and does not descend into physical antics to stretch the words. She finds threads of originality, and with O'Neill that's all you need.