Long, long, long day’s journey…

Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Old Vic, Bristol, Saturday 2nd April 2016

It says something about my experience of this play that I recall the performance of the sign-language describer off to the side more warmly than anything taking place on the stage.

She was very expressive, putting real vigour into her BSL interpretation of “I got on my knees and prayed”. It looked a little something like this, but with more panache.

It’s no disrespect to the cast, headed by Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville, that I was so easily, even willingly distracted. Along with Hadley Fraser and Billy Howle, they had to barrel through a dense and often quite repetitive script in just under four hours.

As a result, the subtlety and deftness of the writing was annihilated in the haste to cram a quart of drama into the pint-pot of audience endurance.

I like demanding works of art. I love all five and a half unbroken hours of Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach and was delighted to catch a very rare live performance. David Peace’s hypnotically repetitive Red or Dead is one my favourite novels of the past ten years. I adore The Wire precisely because it requires commitment. “F**k the casual viewer” was David Simon’s answer to a journalist who asked whether the show’s complicated, overlapping storylines might be too demanding for some people.

These works have been given time and space to breathe and grow, allowing each frond to unfurl naturally.

This production felt like an improv-workshop pastiche of ‘those Eugene O’Neill shouty plays’ as a guest on the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast once put it. ‘Yes, and louder!’ was the order of the day, with each character taking it in turn to ratchet up the pace and intensity.

When the volume starts at 9.5 out of 10 and the characters are tearing chunks out of each other as soon as the lights are dimmed, it’s hard to feel the dramatic peaks, or even know when they are supposed to be.

Many reviewers, including Michael Billington, really rated this production. For me, it became a trial of strength. Three and a half hours of watching a drunkard, a morphine addict and two angry young men scream at and threaten each other. You know, I live in London. I can sit on a park bench in certain parts of town and watch that for free all the live-long day.

If I see Long Day’s Journey Into Night again, I hope it is twice as long and half as fast. Such that I can enjoy the nuance and gentle touches of O’Neill’s writing and appreciate the skill of an actor like Jeremy Irons who was so impressive when I saw him last in the much more restrained role of Harold Macmillan in Never So Good.

A long and disappointing journey.

10 down – 91 to go.

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