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Theatre Review: Long Day's Journey Into Night ***

Michael Cox reviews a very good production that's 'far easier to admire than enjoy'.

Dominic Hill’s latest production of the American classic Long Day’s Journey Into Night certainly looks good. A long sprawling staircase reaches high up to a small chamber, the walls are see-through—allowing the audience to see offstage characters—and the furniture is aged: usable, but hardly comfortable. The world Hill and his design team have created, in short, is far more in line with the world the characters describe: a shoddy house that most tolerate rather than a posh country home many past production have presented.

Playwright Eugene O’Neill’s text is difficult: it contains long descriptive passages and can come across as repetitive. Make no mistake: this is a play where four characters (maid Cathleen only makes a few appearances) spend over three hours describing bleak, empty lives of disappointment.

And things are certainly bleak. Younger son Edmund is ill. Mother Mary is convinced it’s at best an attempt at attention, at worst a summer cold (how much is delusion and how much is genuine belief is up to the audience). Father James and older brother Jamie are sure it’s something else—something much worse.

What we have here is a play that spends over three hours tearing its four principal characters apart. It is vicious. Each character has a go at the others at some point. Life is full of regret, and you get the impression that most of these characters’ failures and disappointments aren’t due to fate but each individual’s flaws, mistakes and weaknesses.

The performances here are uniformly excellent. Brid Ni Neachtain as matriarch Mary is a bit more delicate than past productions, her drug addiction becoming much more apparent earlier on. George Costigan takes a rather brave decision in making James more pathetic, an actor who is never out of character even when he’s claiming to be genuine. His vocal inflictions are almost comedic, occasionally setting him up more as a dunce than as a tragic figure. Sam Phillips’ Jamie is presented here as perhaps the biggest realist: he knows everyone is phoney and is happy to call everyone out, but he himself just can’t be the pillar of strength he claims he wants to be. Lorn MacDonald as Edmund has the most sympathetic role: angry at his situation yet attempting to exist with some dignity.

In truth, Hill’s production is not one to enjoy. That’s partially down to the source material: harrowing subject matters and few allowances for levity make for a gruelling experience. The production gives the characters space to establish themselves, faults and all. While this is a good thing, it also means that some moments can feel much more drawn out than others. The second half is much more focused than the first, but at nearly 100 minutes, it too still feels overlong at times.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a very good production. It looks sharp and has terrific performances. But it is one that is far easier to admire than enjoy, and while it is handled well, there is no getting around the fact: it is indeed a LONG journey into bleakness.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night performs at the Citizens until May 12th before transferring to HOME in Manchester.

Tags: theatre

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