A few days ago I saw Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Sydney Theatre Company, directed by Andrew Upton, AKA Mr Cate Blanchett, and starring William Hurt and Robyn Nevin. The title did not lie: it was a long, long, long day’s journey indeed.
The play, which is regarded as an American classic, is about a retired actor, James Tyrone, his wife Mary, and their two adult sons, James and Edmund, who have retreated to their Connecticut holiday house for the summer. Over the course of one harrowing day, Tyrone’s egocentricity and tight-fistedness is palpably demonstrated, along with its poisonous impact on Edmund, who is dying of consumption, and James, who has become an alcoholic womanizer and failed second-rate actor. Meanwhile, in the throes of a morphine addiction which the rest of the family is helplessly trying to deny, Mary slowly unravels into madness. Basically, it’s the 36 year decline of a family compressed into 24 hours – and Andrew Upton decided to stage it in real time.
Most of the actors played their roles well. Robyn Nevin was masterful, but it’s the sort of role she’s made for: a neurasthenic southern belle vacillating perpetually between graciousness and hysteria, a sort of wired-up Mrs Dalloway. The actor who played James also seemed well-suited for his role – a boorish, slack-jawed walrus-looking type, the sort of person Mike Moore would interview if he were doing a documentary on what really goes on in chicken farms. As for Edmund, I couldn’t help thinking Upton was throwing the audience a bit of a red herring with him. He was nervy, he was sensitive and intellectual, he was wearing purple trousers – who wouldn’t assume he was gay and thus feel issues had been left unexplored when the play finished without any reference to this?
But onto Tyrone. It turns out there is a reason William Hurt is so named: it physically hurts to watch him on stage. Contrary to what you might expect from his slew of Oscar nominations, he cannot act. He’s awful. He continually wrinkles his eyes in a manner I can only assume is meant to look avuncular but which actually makes him look smug and short-sighted. He struggles to maintain an American accent, which is odd, given that he is, in fact, American. He delivers his lines rapidly and without any variation in tone, except for occasionally thrumming the final few words of each sentence, for reasons understood only by himself. And he bellows all of his lines, even when the stage directions call for a hushed, confidential tone, so that, unfortunately, they are all quite audible and falling asleep is an impossibility.
And then there are his gestures. All of them are jarring. He likes to lean insouciantly against the wall to show that he is a self-absorbed egomaniac who cares not a whit for anyone else’s pain. At particularly dramatic moments, he likes to fling both arms out like P.T. Barnum at the opening of a new circus. He’s also fond of wrenching his head to one side like a parakeet who has just been given a challenging new phrase to learn. (Apparently, this indicates that he has something sincere to impart – not that he’s just been stricken by an attack of tetanus or cerebral palsy. I warn you of this just in case, like me, your immediate reaction is to leap up and summon a medic.)
The problems with the production are not all William Hurt’s fault, however: the playwright, Eugene O’Neill, is also partly to blame. And perhaps it’s not even him – perhaps it’s merely that the play has dated over the years so that it no longer seems edgy and subversive and instantly recognisable. There are many things about it that are familiar: in particular, the whole dysfunctional family dynamic brings to mind Jonathon Franzen, Dave Eggers and every indie film featuring Laura Linney released over the past decade. But you know you’re not watching a modern play when it opens with the husband commenting on how lovely and fat his wife is. And when, rather than slapping him and immediately embarking on the CSIRO diet, she smiles girlishly and twirls hers skirts.
There are contextual problems with the script, though – in particular, the whole notion of having a ‘dope fiend’ and a character dying of consumption in the same play. Surely the word anachronistic was made for occasions such as this. ‘Dope’ and consumption just don’t co-exist – it’s like a novel where the protagonist spends the afternoon snorting coke and surfing the net – and then summons the horse and carriage for an evening playing whist with the curate.
I completely understand why Mary is addicted to morphine – or is a ‘dope fiend’ – too. If I had to live with Tyrone and his endless head-twitching, I would be as well.To demonstrate: at interval, Richard asked me if there was anything I wanted at the candy bar. My first instinct was to reply, ‘I want the last 90 minutes of my life back’, but this would have been churlish and ungrateful given that he’d paid for the tickets – so instead I asked for some morphine – anything to shut out what was happening around me. I know people like to complain about legalised injecting centres and how they’re eroding the fabric of respectable society, but believe me, judging by the rate at which well-heeled theatre goers were quaffing champagne during that interval, if there had been an injection centre next to the theatre with stronger stuff than alcohol available, it would have been doing a roaring trade that evening. So you can’t wholly blame Mary.
But back to my issues with the script (and I’ll limit myself just to two more points, because, you know, I haven’t won a Nobel Prize for Literature so who am I to criticise?) Second last point then, the repetition: over and over (and over) the characters would implore each other to please ‘be quiet’ – to not say the awful, unbearable things we all knew were coming anyway. Yes, for god’s sake, please be quiet, the audience members would all echo silently in their heads each time. But no, the confessions and reminiscences would spill out just the same: ‘Let me tell you some of my memories,’ the character would begin (was ever a more ominous phrase uttered on stage?) and we would be regaled with yet another endless account of how whoever it was wished he could have been a windmill or wheel barrow or seadog chasing the spume, instead of the pathetic hollowed-out shell of a man he was. Then three minutes later, a different character would do the same speech again. And then there was the repetition.
And lastly, the drunkenness – which was really just another excuse for more repetitive reminiscences. As every designated driver knows, it is tedious watching other people when they’re drunk if you’re not also drunk yourself (and due to the shortness of the interval and the exorbitant price of champagne, most of the audience were unfortunately not.) This rule hold fast whether the other person is sitting beside you in a bar or on stage performing. To those who are sober, drunks appear infantile and immature and cringe-worthy and predictable. And contrary to what Eugene O’Neill might believe about how intoxicated people typically behave, they don’t generally recite perfectly memorised sections of Shakespeare or Baudelaire: ‘I always envied you as a child, you bastard – you were so damn sophisticated, so cultured!’ James spits at his brother in a drunken rage – and then proceeds to rattle off yet another Rilke sonnet to prove his point.
And then finally it’s over. And at the end of the play – after all the drugs and booze and head twitching and despair – we’re left with nothing but a single light bulb burning against the darkness as all the characters are finally engulfed by night. By implication, all of their suffering is ultimately explained by the fact that the main character is too cheap – both in an emotional and monetary sense – to splash out on an extra light bulb. Yes, if Tyrone had been less tight-fisted, his wife wouldn’t have felt the need to take refuge in narcotics, nor would his sons have become the pitiful, broken creatures they are. It’s a powerful motif – but this notion that people who limit their energy consumption are mean and stingy and responsible for their spouses’ inevitable decline into drug addiction, rather than, say, environmentally conscious, must be quite galling for supporters of Earth Hour.
… And now, as I bring this piece to an end, I find myself thinking of William Hurt again, of how his delivery was largely wooden yet occasionally hammy and theatrical – but how he was playing a second rate stage actor who was in fact emotionally dead where family and real life were concerned. I start to suspect that maybe I actually witnessed a brilliantly layered performance and was just too dense to realise it. But if it was great acting, would it have been so painful to watch? And would I not have got some inkling of how good it was during the performance itself?
Goddammit, my head hurts. I knew we should have seen Westside Story.