By Eugene O’Neill
At the Apollo Theatre, London.
Booking until August 18, 2012.
David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf triumph in this sterling revival by Anthony Page of O’Neill’s great masterpiece.
The story of the Tyrone family, retired theatrical star James Tyrone, his morphine addicted wife Mary and their two wayward sons follows the course of their squabbling over one day in summer 1912, as they holiday in a Connecticut seaside home, enveloped by fog.
“What are you two arguing about”, “Same old stuff”. O’Neill got the nature of families spot-on and by framing the action over the course of a day he reminds us that it’s always the same old argument. They start up like bushfires and eventually burn themselves out when they get too close to the un-sayable.
Written in 1941, O’Neill forbade the play to be published until 25 years after his death, but just three years after, in 1956, his widow Carlotta disobeyed those instructions. It has since entered the canon as one of the greatest plays of all time and Sidney Lumet’s luminous film version from 1962 is one of the most perfect screen adaptations.
O’Neill dubbed it a “play of old sorrow written in tears and blood” and it is a mountain to climb for actors. Suchet, one of our great classical actors but better known the world over as Hercule Poirot, and Metcalf who came to fame in the US sitcom Roseanne, here mine new depths in these great roles.
Metcalf, who got her acting wings at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, brings a nervy Method-like edge to the part, which discomfits at first but then delivers fresh insights. No fey madness here and for a while you even sympathise with James Snr. for putting up with her endless kvetching. It is also a pitch perfect portrayal of the loneliness of the addict. The rambling, the dissembling, the mood swings, are all beautifully observed.
By contrast, Suchet underplays the actorly flourishes as Tyrone Snr. Like O’Neill’s own father, Tyrone is an actor whose early potential in Shakespeare was thwarted by settling for easy success in a long running pot-boiler. That play brought him great financial security but typecast him for the rest of his career. Scarred by a childhood of abject poverty, it set the template for his later miserliness and his obsessive unscrewing of light bulbs, to save on the electric bill. This is one of the play’s great images. While he may not fly off the handle with an Irish temper, like many others have done, Suchet nevertheless brings a still authority to the part. You are in no doubt who rules the roost.
The parts of the sons have created the reputations for many a young actor. Jason Robards Jnr. created the role of Jamie on Broadway in 1956 and Kevin Spacey was memorable in the part in Jonathan Miller’s famed 1986 revival. Trevor White plays the part here while the sickly younger son Edmund (modelled on O’Neill himself) is played by the young American actor Kyle Soller. Now London-based, Soller has made a great splash of late in both The Glass Menagerie and The Government Inspector at the Young Vic and is a name to watch. The challenge for both the sons is to perfectly calibrate the encroaching drunkenness as the night wears on and here they don’t quite nail it. They forget that what defines a drunk is how he tries so hard not to be.
One of the high watermarks of theatrical realism, the play requires an uber-realistic set and Lez Brotherston’s beautiful house is perfectly conceived. Page ends the piece with the characters in isolation, each trapped in their own story, a perfect coda to an unforgettable production.