6-07-2010 3-29-48 PM

Nothing communicates more profoundly or persuasively the heart and soul that informs and so richly imbues this text than Eugene O’Neill’s own dedication, to his wife, headed, ‘For Carlotta, On Our 12th Wedding Anniversary’:

“Dearest, I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a day celebrating happiness. But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness, which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones. These twelve years, Beloved One, have been a journey into Light; into Love. You know my gratitude. And my love!”

Not only, of course, is this a moving testament in itself, bespeaking his love for his wife, but it bequeaths a profound generosity of love and spirit to the ostensibly real-life characters in Long Day’s Journey Into Night ( though I can’t help wondering if sly, old Gene was having bit of a lend, with his title: you don’t get any change out of three hours). At the same time, it gives us a palpable sense of the depth of his passionate commitment to this play. Unwittingly, it is, perhaps, the author’s statement to end all author’s statements.

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At its core, Michael Scott-Mitchell has given us a dingy, homely set, but with strange, cold, disorienting, almost Escheresque angles; presumably to mimic the strange, strangely familiar, familial, emotional angles O’Neill draws so painstakingly and painfully. Conceptually, it’s perfect. In practice, it looks somewhat concrete-jungle corporate (constructed from massive girder-like beams) which isn’t, I don’t think, where it wants to be. Then again, perhaps it’s a heavy-handed allusion to weighty emotions.

Lighting designer Nick Schlieper hasn’t been aschliep at the wheel: shadows loom large and illumination is as scant, miserly and mean as the paternal protagonist; Tess Schofield has costumed with a keen eye for colour, texture, history and, above all, individual character (although I was momentarily distracted and puzzled by James Junior’s flared trouser).

Composer and soundscapist Max Lyandvert (if there’s another big-time sound designer, will he or she please stand up?), as usual, can’t be faulted: his sensitivity and artistry once again come well to the fore, by being so much in the background: his score is spare, just there; audible, without making itself really heard. Judicious intermittency of sounds to locate the play by the seaside, in Connecticut, is a minor stroke of subliminal genius. As such, an ideal marriage with the other behind-the-scenes carftsmanship.

For his part, director Andrew Upton (Mr Cate Blanchett, that is) has taken to the heady task of directing one of the great plays with unbridled enthusiasm and vigour, readily apparent on the stage. (Enthusiasm’s the word: allegedly, he’s read the play at least 20 times.) His casting decisions have been, arguably, somewhat eclectic, but certainly not capricious. One might say visionary. On paper, one can’t necessarily picture Robyn Nevin playing William Hurt’s wife, for instance. But Upton has found and exercised that imagination, as well as the inspiration to cast STC staples Luke Mullins (The Duel; The War Of The Roses; The Serpent’s Teeth; Gallipoli; et al) and Emily Russell, while the operatic Todd Van Voris makes his debut.

At the time the play is set, I doubt it was fashionable to have a drug-addicted mother, like O’Neill and his dramatic persona, Edmund Tyrone. Yet that’s the predicament Edmund and James Junior necessarily find themselves in. It’s also the focal point for irony and aforementioned hypocrisy as both, and their father, are hopeless alcoholics. They, conveniently, don’t see the double standard. Or don’t choose to. They are, each and every one, deeply flawed, but it’s the capacity for mutual, ongoing forgiveness that is the saviour of the family and moving miracle of the play. The miracle of this production is that Upton and his cast clearly evoke these emotional aesthetics. There is the guilt. There, the incurable, longstanding pain. There the self-doubt. It’s the central challenge of the work and all have risen to it.

William Hurt is always William Hurt. He’s one of those actors. Like Hackman, Hoffman, Pacino. As good as all three are at assuming a diversity of roles, there’s always something intrinsically, inescapably themselves in their characterisations. It’s like a brand, with its own distinctive attributes; recognisable, trademark mannerisms. Happily, most of them are attractive or interesting. Charming, charismatic, or downright sexy. But one or two are aggravating, if characteristic: the arch of the back, followed by a shrug and despairing ‘I give up’ resignation of arms loosely thrown in the air, accompanied by a tilt of the head and wince, will be dead familiar to students of the Hurt repertoire. It works, in a coarse way, but reminds you this is William Hurt, not of the part being played, making it that much more difficult to stay with the character.

Hurt is, besides himself, also James Tyrone, a fiercely proud, lapsed Irish Catholic (aren’t they all?); a great actor, gone soft, in a Death Of A Salesman kind of tragic way; patriarch; try-hard-but-failed husband and father. He grew up poor, has learned the value of a dollar and has ended up stingy. That’s the sympathetic version. He’s also rather erratic, hypocritical and self-deluded. All, of course, handy attributes to which to cleave (I know I do).

Hurt has the imposing stature, bearing and youthfulness his character calls for; the piercing blue eyes are optional. Beyond that, Upton seems to have ventured forth, looking for something new, fresh and undiscovered, between the lines. I’m not entirely sure he’s really found it. The play is faithfully, almost obsessively, read and, since it’s performed in Australia relatively rarely, has a different effect, by dint of geographical and cultural transplant: rather than expose the worm in the apple of the American dream, it becomes something of a universal documentary on family dysfunction and survival. As such, it is both a tribute to the resilience of family bonds and a damnation of the lifelong damage they tend to inflict.

In the pursuit of the new, Upton has subverted the textbook takes on the characters somewhat: Hurt’s James, Sr., seems, perhaps, less melancholically prone than is sometimes depicted and somewhat better-attired, for example. Hurt’s diction is, frequently, lacking and surprisingly (even allowing for opening night jitters in a foreign land) he doesn’t always seem in total command of himself, or as self-assured as might be expected of such an accomplished actor. Having said that, he is mostly meticulous and studied in the exposition of his character. He is, at the end of the day, still, a very fine actor.

6-07-2010 3-31-56 PM

The question is more for Upton, as director and co-artistic director of the company, with Blanchett. Isn’t this a re-run of the tried-and tedious debate about whether, or how often, we need to import talent? John Bell, for example, is remembered fondly for his portrayal of the very same character. Why not him, or another Australian actor? This isn’t parochialism or a denial of the cogency of the argument we can learn from outside influences and influencers. It’s simply a recognition of the lack of opportunity for gifted homegrown actors, of which there are many. Sure, the casting of an acclaimed, respected and recognised actor like Hurt can break through walls in America and raise the profile of the STC and Australian theatre more generally there and elsewhere, but could we not just agitate a little more, for the same result, with a wholly homegrown cast? Okay, it’s a co-production, but why? Can we not stage a classic and classically American play without the presence of Americans? Would it be too cynical to suspect Upton and Blanchett might be susceptible to a certain measure of bowing and kowtowing, to American friends?

Hey, I’m just asking (in my capacity as one of the devils’ primary advocates)…

Nevin is incredible and, it has to be said, easily outshines any other member of the cast. Her concentration never falters, or alters: she’s always in the moment, hitting the note, absolutely in character. As mother Mary, she’s every bit as nuanced as you might hope and expect; quite flawless, in veering wildly between her best impression of caring mother, cruel, mindfully manipulative tyrant, morphine junkie and queen of denial. She’s a woman in meltdown: we can see, hear and feel it.

A theatre-maker in his own right, Mullins does a highly competent job, too, of balancing his see-sawing character as younger son, Edmund (and, thus, effectively, O’Neill himself); ‘though I do find his reading a little dry. There’s the worldly young man who’s had an eye-opening stint in the merchant navy. And the attention-seeking baby boy, patronised, doted upon and abused, sometimes all at once, by his jealous older sibling and parents.

Todd Van Voris, with his commanding voice (he sounds as if he might’ve just stepped off the bridge of the Starship Enterprise) delivers a slick and robust James Jr.; though a little too strong on affectation. As with Mullins, there is no question of the depth of his skills or talents; it comes down to a matter of judgment and experience. Nevin’s is the benchmark here: experience seems to afford her the gift of measurement; her performance is imbued with careful, if not downright fastidious calibrations of the physical, emotional and vocal attributes of her character. Mind you, Van Voris feigns, I reckon, the most authentic fits of laughter I’ve witnessed on any stage. There’s a moment when he seems to be almost in titanic competition with Hurt for this prize. He wins, by a nose.

Emily Russell’s Cathleen is a hearty evocation. One has clearer sense of a real personality than with the other actors (Mary’s is obscured by addiction). Mind you, hers is a less complex character: what a relief; one very much intended, methinks, by O’Neill, as a leavening influence. She is, in many ways, the voice of sanity and moderation, notwithstanding her own weakness for the demon drink. Cathleen, in Russell’s care, is a boisterous, feisty, uncomplicated, salt-of-the-earth Irish saviour, of humble proportions.

It’s all too easy, of course, to be an armchair critic (no wonder we’re so reviled as a professional species). While I don’t resile, for a moment, from the doubts and questions I’ve raised here, it has to be said, in the interests of perspective, it’s all in the spirit of dialectic around the play and issues that arise from its cross-continental co-production. And, for heaven’s sake, this was opening night. While we hold STC to the highest possible standard and a much loftier one than for other companies, as well we should, it should still be alright to afford the actors, especially (who are, after all, almost human) a margin for error, albeit small.

And yet, despite the density and duration of the text, elongated dialogues and demanding histrionics, there were virtually no discernible bugger-ups. And in retailing one of the great scripts of the last century, STC has been overwhelmingly successful. As laudable as it is and as much as it’s incumbent upon any new director to bring novelty, at some level, to the task, at the end of the long day it’s O’Neill’s comprehensively catharsis that needs to seep through. It does: for an evening, we become members of the Tyrone, or O’Neill, family and are reminded that, as such, we’re card-carrying life members of that one big, big, fucked-up family of man.

The details: Long Day’s Journey Into Night plays the Sydney Theatre until August 1. Tickets via the Sydney Theatre Company website.

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