Eugene O’Neill described writing Long Day’s Journey Into Night as a torturous experience and it’s not hard to see why. His most autobiographical piece, it is relentlessly bleak and leaves the audience winded, but, as Anthony Page’s production proves, it can also be stunning.
This is more than in part down to the two central performances from David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf. Both light up the stage with their remarkable portrayal of two people fighting their history with as much chance of winning as if they were fighting a tide; the past gradually lapping at the present, growing with force over the course of, as the title would suggest, a long and ultimately destroying day.
It is 1912 and the long married couple are at their summer house with their two wayward, playboy sons, Jamie (Trevor White) a whore-house residing drunk and Edmund (Kyle Soller), the impressionable poetic younger son whose summer cold is soon revealed to be something much more serious.
For the first 30 minutes a well-worn routine takes place, the men tip-toeing around Mary (Metcalf) as if walking on broken glass, plying her with compliments and support as if she might break any second. Of course, break she does, throwing the house into a turmoil that rips through every character with devastating results.
For British audiences, Suchet’s strong performance as the tight-fisted Irish US immigrant made good will come as no surprise. Even relative newcomer Soller has built a reputation that his performance as the vulnerable and idealistic Edmund will only strengthen. But for those that remember Metcalf only from 1980s television series Roseanne have a shock coming to them. On stage she is electrifying as a woman caught between addiction and the memory of a lost faith that now haunts her.
Her language becomes more fractured throughout the performance, and while Suchet’s Irish American accent may be faultless, it is Metcalf’s voice that steals the show. Flitting between a wickedly acid tongue and the constant need for redemption, it’s a schizophrenic performance that leads each of the characters to fall further into their own destructive habits.
Lez Brotherston’s atmospheric design complements the bleakness perfectly, with fog rolling ever thicker into the windows outside the family’s tortuous showdown, the fog horn echoing the horror visible in everyone’s eyes.
While Long Day’s Journey Into Night may be a hard three hours to sit through, it’s also a mesmerising one that captures the complexity of familial love in all its dangerous and sometimes conflicting intensity.