Long Day’s Journey Into Night – August 2012

Experience: 9/10

By Eugene O’Neill

Directed by Anthony Page

Venue: Apollo Theatre

Date: Monday 13th August 2012

This was a fantastic production, with two stunning performances in the central roles of husband and wife by David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf. David Suchet showed the full range of the father’s behaviour, from the charming actor through to the mean drunk who could rage at anyone with or without justification. Laurie Metcalf took the mother from the opening high of sweetness with just a hint of nerves all the way down to the depths of her addiction to morphine. I don’t know how Eugene O’Neill managed it, but despite this being nearly three hours spent watching other people’s suffering, anger, miserliness and stupidity, I not only enjoyed myself but left feeling uplifted.

Although neither of the young men playing the sons had the power of the two leads, they were good enough to keep the play in balance, as was Rosie Sansom who played the maid Cathleen. James junior (Trevor White) didn’t manage the rapid switches in the emotional journey of a drunk as well as I would have liked in the final act, but his performance was strong enough overall. Tom Railton did very well as the understudy for Edmund. His youthfulness was just right for the character, and I didn’t notice any significant slips or any imbalance in his scenes with the other characters. I don’t know when he took the part on – we heard some extra rehearsing before the doors were opened – but he fitted in just fine.

There were lots of laughs, more than I expected. The first time we saw this I think it was Timothy West and Prunella Scales as the husband and wife, and I remember it as a very heavy production with the emphasis on suffering. Another production with Charles Dance and Jessica Lange didn’t go as deeply into the characters, but this current version was very detailed, bringing out a lot of humour as well as taking us to a very dark place. Talk about dysfunctional families! We laughed when David Suchet glanced up towards the ceiling lights which he’d switched on in a fit of drunken abandon; as he sobered up, his character’s ingrained stinginess came out, and we recognised the signs even before he spoke, though his line about switching them off caused an even bigger laugh.

Laurie Metcalf’s final disintegration into a doped-up emotional wreck was difficult to watch. She lay half on the floor, curled up around the leg of the sofa, unable to relate to the other characters at all, lost in a nightmarish past. The play closed with the three men sinking into the chairs round the table and preparing for a night of drinking themselves into a similar oblivion. After the morning’s bright possibility of recovery had been snatched away, they were resigned to having lost her again. It should have been depressing, but it wasn’t. Magnificent.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Beyond The Horizon – May 2010

6/10

By Eugene O’Neill

Directed by Laurie Sansom

Company: Royal and Derngate Northampton

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Thursday 27th May 2010

We expect O’Neill’s work to be dark and full of suffering, and today’s piece hit the mark perfectly. It had the look and feel of an early work (haven’t read the program notes yet) with a bit more humour and less detail and complexity in the relationships, but not enough to reduce our enjoyment.

The set was nice and simple. A slightly raised square platform had torn strips of earth and floorboard across it, to represent the two locations. A tree trunk stood centre back, with stumps of branches twisted in the same direction, indicating a strong prevailing wind. At the back were silhouettes of hills in the distance, and the sky above took on different colours to suit the time and the mood. For the scenes on top of the hill, the cast usually brought on pieces of a fence which they slotted into position. For the interior scenes, they brought on a table (left of centre), a comfy chair (front right), a writing bureau (back right) and chairs and a footstool. For the final scene on the hilltop, the cast simply turned the furniture over, suggesting the final destruction of the farm, and of the remaining characters’ dreams.

The story involved two brothers, Andy and Robert, both in love with the same girl, Ruth. They’ve grown up together in a small farming community in Connecticut, with Andy being the farming type, destined to take over the farm from his father one day, and Robert being the sickly bookworm, who’s developed into a healthier young man, and who now wants to go to sea with Uncle Dick to travel and see the world, as well as learning to be ship’s officer.

The play opens the evening before Robert is due to leave. The two brothers stood on the stage, either side of the tree, as the rest of the cast brought on the fence posts and props. With the brothers staying still, the others set up the fence, then gave each brother their prop (a hoe and a book, since you ask) and after standing for a moment lining each side of the stage, the others left and the action began. This type of staging can slow things down an awful lot, but in this case it was OK, and paid one major dividend towards the end (more on that story later).

The brothers talk about many things, including their relationship, their father’s farm, how folk will miss Robert, etc. Robert is going to tell his brother something, but backs out at the last minute. As Andy heads off to wash up for dinner, Ruth arrives, wanting to know why Robert wants to leave his family and friends. His first reason is poetical and romantic. He tells her of all the times when he was young and in his wheelchair, sitting by the window and looking out at the hills, how he used to dream about the sea, and all the lands beyond. Now he was well enough to travel, he was keeping the promise he’d made to himself all those years ago. (It sounded better when he told it.) Then we get the other reason. He tells Ruth that he’s in love with her, but since she’s in love with Andy….. Ruth is practically wetting herself with excitement by this time, ‘cause she’s actually in love with Robert. She spent time with Andy because Rob was always off on his own, reading some book. Knowing this, Rob agrees to ditch his travel plans, stay on the farm and marry Ruth. (Uncle Dick will be so disappointed. I mean it, he will.)

The next scene is set in the farmhouse, after supper. Rob is taking Ruth and her mother home, while Andy, Ma and Pa Mayo, and Uncle Dick are sitting down talking. Or rather Uncle Dick is talking, about some woman asking a foolish question about where seagulls sleep. He’s an obnoxious old bugger and no mistake. It’s a miracle his crew haven’t murdered him in his sleep and thrown the body overboard. Fortunately, Kate Mayo, Ron and Andy’s mother, is a cheerful soul with a positive outlook. Pa Mayo is a decent enough bloke, not inclined to give too much whisky to Dick, presumably his brother-in-law, but otherwise fine unless his pride in the family farm is attacked. Andy’s very quiet, and goes off to check on one of the cows, which gives Kate a chance to talk about her feeling that things aren’t right. She’s already picked up from the fact that Rob and Ruth were glowing and Andy was down in the dumps that perhaps the wedding they’re all expecting sometime soon may have a different pair at the altar than previously envisaged, but her husband pooh-poohs the idea. Mind you, he does acknowledge she was right later on, after Rob comes back and announces his change of plan. Ma and Pa are delighted, Uncle Dick throws a strop, apparently based on his concern that after getting a cabin freshly painted for Rob to use, the crew will think he was planning on bringing a woman with him, but she’s dumped him. Andy congratulates Rob, having returned just as he was telling everyone his news, but it’s clear he’s been hit hard. As Dick goes on trying to persuade Rob to change his mind, it’s also clear how this is going to play out. Sure enough, Andy soon announces he’ll be going with Uncle Dick in Rob’s place. To stop his father’s protests, he throws some unkind words at him, insulting the very farm he’s loved himself up to now, and that’s too much for his father who disowns him outright. There was a fair bit of humour in this scene, particularly when Pa Mayo went to top up Uncle Dick’s whisky glass. While he’s talking, he keeps pausing just before he pours, and when he finally did pour, it hardly covered the bottom of the glass. We did enjoy the pauses, and the look Dick gave him.

The next scene is set several years ahead. There’s a child, around three years old, called Mary, and Ruth and her mother are now living in the Mayo farmhouse. Ruth looks harassed and worn out, and is increasingly cross with Mary, who isn’t keen to spend time with her bitch of a mother. Ruth’s mother may not be able to walk, but her mouth and tongue are in fine fettle, and so they should be, the amount of exercise they get. Criticising this, carping about that, complaining that no one ever takes her advice, it would try the patience of a saint, something no one would ever accuse her of being. Kate is dressed in black, and we soon get confirmation that Pa Mayo has died, about three years ago, and not long after Rob started working on the farm. As a result, the place has gone steadily downhill; Rob doesn’t have Andy’s experience or aptitude for farming, and without his father’s guidance he’s making a mess of things. This puts a lot of pressure on Ruth, while Kate seems to be content leaving everything in Rob’s incapable hands. She’s not even bothered when Ruth’s mother ‘accidentally’ lets slip that Rob is intending to mortgage the farm. And over all of this hangs the rainbow of Andy’s return. He’s sent them letters, they’re expecting him any day, and everyone seems to think it will all be fine when Andy gets back and takes over the farm. Ruth even tells Rob that she really loved Andy all along, though she didn’t realise it until too late. I did wonder if he would actually turn up at all or whether it would turn out to be their delusions talking, but the first half ends with Andy’s off-stage arrival.

The next scene is back up on the hill. Rob has taken Mary up there, and told her to play in the shade of the tree with her doll. Andy finds him there, and asks about all his experiences. Apparently, the amazing and terrifying time when they went through a monsoon slipped Andy’s mind when he came to write his letters home. (I did briefly wonder if Ruth had been hiding some of them.) Then comes the bad news – Andy plans to spend a short time on the farm, helping them get it back into shape, and making sure he hires a good man to look after things when he’s gone, but then he’s heading back to Argentina, to work in the grain business, where there are fortunes waiting for enterprising young men such as himself. He also tells Rob that he realised pretty soon that he didn’t actually love Ruth, so there needn’t be any tension between them over that.

Rob tells him not to mention this to Ruth, but after he takes Mary back to the house, Ruth arrives, all spruced up now she has a man to attract. When Andy tells her he doesn’t love her, she’s terribly hurt, and then Uncle Dick turns up to tell Andy that a boat in the harbour is actually on the point of leaving for Argentina, and everyone’s fate is sealed.

The next scene is another few years ahead. At the end of setting up the farmhouse room again, Kate, still in black, is standing by Pa Mayo, and Mary runs and joins them. They then leave the stage together, and from this I realised that both Kate and Mary had died. This was confirmed in the opening few minutes of the scene, and I felt this was a very effective use of these scene change moments. Now things have got really bad, with Ruth’s mother having to give Ruth money out of her savings to keep them afloat, but only just afloat. Rob is seriously ill, but still talking of a wonderful future. Ruth looks completely worn out, and her mother is no less bitchy than before. When Andy turns up with a doctor to check up on Rob’s condition, we learn that Rob has indeed very little time left. He tries to get Andy to promise to marry Ruth once he’s dead, but Andy holds off. Ruth and he talk about this, and Ruth explains that Rob still thinks she’s in love with Andy – this bit dragged a little. But then they find Rob has escaped from the bedroom, and they search for him, ending up back on the hilltop.

Rob is there, and this is when the furniture is turned over. The play ends with Rob dying in Andy’s arms. Andy and Ruth have a few more lines, but I don’t remember exactly what was said, although I think there was some reference back to earlier images.

Overall, it was a good play, and a good production, with strong performances all round. Despite a mobile going off towards the end of the penultimate scene, we enjoyed ourselves, and we’re only surprised to find that this is our first visit to the Cottesloe this year.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Emperor Jones – October 2007

6/10

By: Eugene O’Neill

Directed by: Thea Sharrock

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 30th October 2007

This was a pretty unusual O’Neill play, one we may not see again for a long time. It was experimental for its time, which makes it seem quite modern. The play looks at racism, oppression, and the effect this sort of abuse has on the human psyche. We see the Emperor at the point where his subjects have deserted him, and are about to boot him out. He flees, and his journey through a forest takes him, and us, through a montage of experiences, some from his own past, some even earlier. We see his escape from a chain gang after killing a guard, a slave auction, and what I think must have been part of a journey across the Atlantic on a slave ship. As all these ghosts appear, he fires off his bullets, until only the silver one is left, the one he’s keeping for himself. Finally, the madness drives him to kill himself, and the natives of his former realm achieve their goal without appearing to have done anything.

The play is basically a one-man piece, and demands a great deal from the lead actor. There are a few other speaking parts, and a dancing role, but Brutus Jones dominates from early on. Fortunately, Patterson Joseph is well up to the challenge, and gives an excellent performance as the swaggerer brought low by his own fears and fantasies. He’s a charming rogue, and it’s easy to see how he could have hoodwinked the natives on his island, but his lies catch up with him, and he can’t handle being alone in the forest. The other parts mainly serve to pad out his story, as with the white trader who helped him after he escaped from the chain gang.

The set was fantastic, and was another good example of how to use the vast Olivier stage. A central disc was surrounded by a crescent slope. The back wall of the central part had steps leading up to a platform with a gaudy throne, and not much else, apart from a carpet and a couple of doorways. After an initial scene where the white trader meets the last woman to run away from the emperor, there’s a long conversation between the trader and Brutus Jones, during which we learn all we need to know of his past. He’s already laid plans to escape once the natives rumble him, only he didn’t think it would be so soon. Still, he’s confident, and sets off for the forest sure that he’ll make it to a waiting ship.

For the forest scenes, the back walls are lifted away, and another disc, ragged this time, descends to form a sloping roof to the action. It’s a patchwork of corrugated iron, interwoven with wood and other materials, with strategic slits which allow the moonlight to shine through. Along with the lighting, it gave the whole stage an eerie feel. And in the background was the constant beat of the drums, enough to drive anyone mad.

For this part, Patterson Joseph had to be fit, as he spent a lot of it running around the place. I spotted the black men secretively creeping onto the stage a good while before they clambered onto the disc and started to form the chain gang – this all added to the spookiness. The final arrival of the natives looking for him gave us some lively dancing, and then the expected end – there was no way Emperor Jones was getting out of this alive.

While it was interesting to see this style of a play from this period, I wouldn’t say it was a complete success. The performances were great, especially the lead, of course, but that was all there really was to it. The points about slavery and abuse leading to more abuse were well made, but without any real context to give the play greater substance. On the whole, I left feeling glad I’d seen the play, and the performances, but not entirely satisfied with the afternoon.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Moon For The Misbegotten – December 2006

Experience: 9/10

By Eugene O’Neill

Directed by Howard Davies

Venue: Old Vic Theatre

Date: Wednesday 6th November 2006

Although I enjoyed this play enormously, and suspect that this is about the best production of it we’re likely to see (even assuming we get to see another one!) I felt it was just below 10/10 status for me. But only just. The play itself is a marvel, reminding me of the skill and power of Terence Rattigan in In Praise of Love. The story is basically about the relationships among three people. For long periods there are only two actors on stage, yet it constantly gripped and moved me. I wanted to see what happened to these people – would they make it out of their own personal hells?

The set was visible from the off. A Hopper-esque mid-western landscape with a splash of Dali in the crooked shack, and achingly blue skies stretching into forever while a few clouds failed to look important in the distance. Lovely. Actually, the play is set in Connecticut, which I don’t associate with the empty prairie look, but then what do I know?

Eve Best plays Josie Hogan, the daughter of Phil Hogan (Colm Meaney). The opening scene involves her helping her brother Mike (Eugene O’Hare) to run off. He’s tired of the old man’s beatings, and wants to better himself. We learn that there’s another brother who’s done the same thing before. Josie chooses to stay with her Dad; she can handle him OK, as we see when he turns up looking for his lazy good-for-nothing son. She gets a big stick and threatens him when he turns on her and he soon backs down.

Their conversation is rambling, and entertaining, and gives us a lot of the background. They’re working a pretty difficult farm – mostly stones – and not actually paying rent to the owner, Jim Tyrone (Kevin Spacey) the son of the original owner. Jim is a drunk. He used to be an actor, and apparently talks like he’s headed back to the bright city lights, but he never seems to do anything but mooch around and drink away his inheritance. He comes over regularly to hang out with Phil, mostly in the nearby bar, and despite his joking around we can see he’s really interested in Josie. Their relationship develops over the course of a drunken, moon-soaked night, and naturally we find out why Jim drinks. Phil has been spinning yarns again to encourage Josie to get Jim to propose, so that she can have a good life and not have to keep working on the farm, but it doesn’t quite work out. Although there’s not a happy ending as such, there is a sense of completion, as Josie forgives Jim for his assumed guilt.

We also see one T Steadman Harder (Billy Carter) whose land adjoins Phil’s farm. Phil has been taking liberties with Harder’s ice pond, tearing down the fence between the properties and letting his pigs enjoy themselves in a nice cool pool. Harder turns up to try and thrash things out, but ends up getting thrashed himself, as Phil and Josie gang up on him and accuse him of letting their pigs onto his land where they might drown or catch a cold from the chilly water! Very entertaining, and it shows father and daughter working as a team, which they do very effectively.

All the performances were great, with so much detail in them it was difficult to know who to watch especially when all three leads were on stage together. I do hope this production wins awards.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me