Wyndham’s Theatre, London – until 7 April 2018
There are some evenings when, as the cast take their bow with that half-relaxed half-smile, you are shocked: you feel you have not been watching a performance but witnessing a great human ordeal.
Eugene O’Neill’s best play, a three-and-a-half hour fugue of unhappiness and love, is both exhausting and strangely invigorating. Maybe it is as simple as “they survived, so we can”. But more likely it is that in its acknowledgement of vast insoluble human pain, it becomes a hand reaching out across time to take yours.
Whether you believe like the morphine-addled Mary that the Virgin Mary is still up there, or like her tubercular son Edmund that Nietzsche was right and God is dead, the point is that others have felt it all before you. And as Mary says: “None of us can help the things life has done to us.”
Lesley Manville, whose wrenching, delicately controlled pain scorched through Richard Eyre’s unforgettable production of Ibsen’s Ghosts a while back, now shines in an extraordinary performance under the same director.
The immense, intimate epic of addiction and love is set in Rob Howell’s blue-glass, skewed imagination of a summer house by the sea. She is in turns flirty, scared, angry, manic, cooing, sly, spiteful, querulous, loving, dangerous, excited, resentful: changing within seconds.
She is the Tyrone family’s madonna, their fount of love, their toxic time-bomb: the eternal addict who is the enemy of ease because of what is (for a long time) not spoken of: the hypodermic, the stash upstairs.
The long day unfurls into nightmare from the initial family banter, breakfast-time prattling as if nothing was wrong except the patriarch’s snoring, Edmund’s “summer cold” and Jamie’s dissipation.
But Eyre’s meticulous detailing shows the opening of cracks which will widen to chasms. Jeremy Irons is the retired actor, growlingly affectionate, exasperated by his sons then suddenly lovingly amused, pulling his beloved wife onto his lap. But he betrays an anxious need for control in sudden tidiness, picking up Jamie’s cup off the sofa and fussily plumping cushions.
His Mary is too bright, too chatty for comfort; elder son Jamie is watchful, his brother Edmund aware of his own illness but being constantly pulled back to share in the observation of his mother. For after the bright hope of her return from the sanatorium, she is relapsing. Dare they believe it ? Jamie explicitly does; his father attempts denial. Through that first act the most telling (and truthful) detail is often just a stillness: anyone who has lived with an addict, a relapsing alcoholic, or self-harming depressive will recognize that nervous stillness: everyone watching, hoping this isn’t the bad thing back again, knowing it probably is.
Every one of them must find refuge: old Tyrone in memories of the great Shakespearian he thinks he might have been, Edmund in Swinburne and Schopenhauer and Ibsen (“filth and degenerates” says his father), Jamie in drinking and whoring. Every ordinary weakness is magnified by the central, demonic thing in their midst. The fog comes down, swirls beyond the glass walls. Back-story emerges: a nomadic theatrical life, bare hotel rooms and dirty trains, her babies born on the road, his near-miserly fear of poverty and absurd land deals, the baby who died, the doctor who hooked her on morphine when Edmund was newborn, the social gulf between the couple when they married. But as most of this comes through Mary’s rattling monologues and resentful mood-swings, you are never quite sure what to count.
Absurdity runs alongside the tragedy, horribly funny moments always a second away from a lethal shaft of pain. Later, when the morphine is openly spoken of, Manville’s prattling insistence that when Edmund is better and things are easier she will definitely beat it, Matthew Beard’s Edmund stares sideways out at us, hollow-eyed, defeated by her denial. When Rory Keenan’s Jamie comes home drunk and obscene, baiting a tipsy father and brother, it cannot be long before the restless footsteps upstairs bring the dreaded, loved mother into their midst, drifting farther away from them than ever. The poetry is in the pity. I have rarely seen anything more delicately, honestly, skilfully sorrowful.