Eugene O’Neill’s greatest play (in all senses, it’s a whopping three and a half hours long) has a thick fog of mythology surrounding it. It’s the play he holed himself away to write, the play where he drew on his utterly dysfunctional family life so closely that he stipulated that it could only be performed after his death. In Richard Eyre’s painfully intense production, these troubled figures are resurrected with both unsparing naturalism and just enough tenderness to make their flaws all the more painful.
Half tripping, half floating across the stage, Lesley Manville plays Mary, a mother who’s tied to her past by her morphine addiction. Her two grown up sons want to believe she’s finally beaten her dependency, but their faith is gradually undermined by Manville’s virtuoso performance: her tongue’s driven by an inner motor that forces her to expose her innermost resentments, fears, the memories she can’t escape. Her husband, James Tyrone, might be an actor, but he’s only barely got more control over his hang-ups: a wonderfully mercurial Jeremy Irons flies into blind furies at his nervous, coughing son Edmund (Matthew Beard), only just remembering that he’s suffering potentially fatal illness. And Edmund’s alcoholic older brother Jamie (Rory Keenan) inhabits his reputation as family layabout, niggling away at the father he’s doomed to disappoint. Mary’s gradual sinking into a drug-addled haze might give structure to O’Neill’s story, but she’s not the only one who’s haunted by falling short of her family’s expectations.
O’Neill’s writing repeats itself, circles in on itself, obsessively picks away at the same old scabs with a doggedness that could be called adolescent or repetitive. But this quality is also the source of its horribly uncomfortable power. The family’s arguments suck you in, force you to become a fifth member whose loyalties are endlessly called on in a shifting game of ‘Who ruined whose life?’.
Just when you think you can’t bear it anymore, O’Neill’s text throws in some unlikely humour: some horrendously inappropriate lines from Shakespeare, an (admittedly rather stereotyped) Irish maid whose craven quest to get her hands on the family’s whisky is a lighter echo of the big addictions that wrack this play.
Eyre’s approach makes the family home a permeable place, the outside world visible through its translucent walls, the sound of foghorns drifting in from the sea outside. It’s a decision that emphasises the unsatisfactoriness of this home (a theme that Mary’s ramblings return to, gaining weight with each repetition) and the lure of the vast spaces beyond it, urging this pent-up family to drift apart.