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‘I’ve done a lot of plays,’ says Lesley Manville, with some understatement. ‘A lot of great plays: Caryl Churchill, Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg, Shakespeare. But I don’t think I’m overselling it by saying that this is the greatest play I’ve ever done.’
The work in question is Eugene O’Neill’s titanic ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’. A three-and-a-half-hour eruption of pain that depicts the disintegration of the broken Tyrone family – a thinly veiled version of O’Neill’s own clan – he wrote it clandestinely and stipulated that it wasn’t to be published until 25 years after his death, and never performed. In fact it was published and performed a mere three years after, in 1956, and swiftly went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and secure its reputation as the greatest American play ever written.
‘I feel the same,’ says Jeremy Irons, Manville’s co-star in a new West End revival of the masterpiece. ‘It’s something to do with the fact that he locked himself away for so long writing it, trying to understand his parents and what he was. He doesn’t judge, he doesn’t do anything for effect; instead, he simply wrote what he wanted to say, and that makes it a very rare play.’
Irons plays James Tyrone, the patriarch of the family, a classical actor who has sold his artistry down the river by staying in the same role, for money, for most of his life (O’Neill’s father played the title role in ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ north of 6,000 times). Manville is Mary Tyrone, who – like O’Neill’s mother Mary – is cracking up in a haze of morphine addiction. In 2016 they played the roles to great acclaim in a production at the Bristol Old Vic.
'I don't like Broadway, I don't like Broadway audiences'
In a Telegraph interview last month, Irons – who has the quite glorious air of a man now at a stage in his career when he really doesn’t give a toss if anything he says gets him into trouble – declared that, ‘I’m not interested in the West End and I’m not interested in Broadway.’ Yet here they are. Irons doesn’t exactly row back on his earlier statement, but both of them say they would rather be doing a shorter West End run of the exhausting play, and in New York it’ll play off-Broadway for just three weeks (‘I don’t like Broadway, I don’t like Broadway audiences,’ Irons grumbles). As Irons explains, O’Neill’s play is gruelling for all the right reasons: ‘There’s a huge investment when you’re doing it, you can’t just breeze through it and go to the pub. It’s intense stuff. And you can’t cheat.’
However, they are palpably excited to get back into these roles.United by the play and of roughly the same generation (she’s 61, he’s 69), they get on splendidly, chatting over one another excitedly, but are clearly also vastly different characters. She’s inquisitive, earnest and unashamedly fired up about her career, as well she might be, having just received Oscar and Bafta nominations for her new film ‘Phantom Thread’.
‘I’m desperate to go back on stage’ says Manville, ‘It reminds me who I am as an actor.’ Manville had a long mid-career break from theatre while she was starring in an impressive string of Mike Leigh films. She rues that she was offered a Shakespeare role with the RSC, but ‘I was a single mother with a five-year-old and it was going to be 17 weeks on tour. It was just circumstances. And then I looked at my watch and then suddenly it had been ten years.’
So it’s understandable that when I ask her if retirement appeals – à la ‘Phantom Thread’ co-star Daniel Day-Lewis – she is horrified: ‘No! I’m not looking to retire. I like it too much. And the bottom line is that I’m having a bit of a heyday, as somebody called it recently, a late blossoming: it’s not bad for a 61-year-old to be having so much work when actresses half my age are struggling.’
The mischievous, faintly louche Irons seems semi-taken with the idea of retirement, however. ‘I’ve never had the urge to work, actually,’ he says ,‘and I love life not working. I’m of an age where I’m very happy to ride my horses, sail a boat, walk the dog. Either pay me an absolute fortune, or it must be a character that I adore, or a new play that is really exciting.’
‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ is on at Wyndham’s Theatre until Apr 8.