Howard Davies and Kevin Spacey had a critical success with their last joint effort – Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. Now they have reunited for another O’Neill play, in which Spacey reprises the character he first portrayed 20 years ago in the playwright’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Jamie Tyrone. They are joined by Eve Best, who featured in the National’s 2004 Laurence Olivier Award winning production of O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra. Caroline Bishop attended the press night to see the result…
Eugene O’Neill’s 1942 play is an emotional battering ram which pounds its characters at varying strengths for its three-hour length. But there is much humour too, interjected within the soul-searching, and Howard Davies’s production makes the most of this delicate balance as its three protagonists go through a kaleidoscope of emotions.
Set in 1923, the play opens onto a rundown old farmhouse, atmospherically lit (by Laurence Olivier Award winner Paule Constable) to evoke the morning sun over rural Connecticut. It’s occupied by Phil and Josie Hogan, a father and daughter who spend their time farming the land and using each other as verbal sparring partners. It’s a mutually reliant relationship but each covers up the affection they feel for the other with insults born out of pride. Eve Best’s Josie is a stubborn, feisty girl whose strops verge on childish and who disguises her emotional longing by encouraging her reputation as a slut. Her father, played by Colm Meaney, is an Irish-American who loves drinking in the local inn to the detriment of his pig pen.
They are joined in this setting by Jim Tyrone (Spacey), his light suit conspicuous in this workman’s setting, and his all-American accent contrasting with the Hogans’ Irish-American hybrid. He’s a rich, alcoholic, out of work actor and their landlord, who drops in on his tenants to relate stories of Broadway and help himself to Phil’s whiskey.
Each character has its own demons, which are gradually uncovered after Jim’s supposed betrayal of his friends. Josie and Jim’s feelings for each other are at first suppressed, as neither is able to admit the failures and past deeds that make them unable to form a relationship; but their night-time rendez-vous provokes an emotional outpouring as their feelings come crashing through the dam. Best is achingly real as the insecure and lonely girl whose pride gets in the way, while Spacey flips schizophrenically between emotional wreck and drunken cad in his portrayal of a man trapped by himself in a past that disgusts him. Both Spacey and Meaney are talented drunks, with nice comic touches that provide the audience with some light relief from the raw emotion.
As the drama reaches its conclusion, all three characters have made some sort of peace with themselves and each other, in this tragic, touching and very human play.