(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/19;  Photo: Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville.  Photograph: The Guardian.)

Eugene O’Neill’s mighty drama, returning to the West End with Brian Cox and Patricia Clarkson, has drawn generations of stage greats and casts its spell with a story we can all recognise

How to approach Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night? “At our very first reading,” wrote Michael Blakemore, who directed a famous National Theatre production in 1971, “I encouraged the cast not to regard the play as some great tragic Everest waiting to be climbed.” Those are wise words that I hope Jeremy Herrin, directing a new production with Brian Cox and Patricia Clarkson, opening at Wyndham’s theatre in London, takes to heart.

Of course, it is a great play. But, having seen half a dozen productions, I would suggest that it works best when you realise that, within a classical structure, it contains all the anguish of family life. You could argue that O’Neill’s characters are exceptional: the father is a miserly actor who has wasted his potential, his wife is a morphine addict and their elder and younger sons are, respectively, a cynical barfly and a consumptive poet. But Blakemore again hits the nail on the head when, in his book Stage Blood, he praises the play’s democracy of spirit and claims that all you need to understand it is “the experience of being a member of a family”.

While the play is essentially realistic, there is also a calculated symbolism in its progress from bright, confident morning to a final fogbound descent into midnight despair. The clue lies in the title. It is a long day’s journey and the one production that short-circuited that element was Jonathan Miller’s in 1986. It boasted fine performances from Jack Lemmon as James Tyrone and from Kevin Spacey as his wastrel elder son. But, by cutting the running time to under three hours through the use of overlapping dialogue, it fractured the play’s rhythm and blurred key plot points: it was never clear that Mary Tyrone’s addiction was prompted by her husband’s engagement of a cheap doctor when she was giving birth to her second son.

In the main, however, local productions have done rich justice to this landmark play often by an astute mix of British and American actors in the leads. In the National’s 1971 version, Olivier was an unforgettable James Tyrone: what I especially remember was his evocation of the character’s wasted talent so that when he sweetly crooned: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” you suddenly believed this old matinee idol could have been an American Kean. But Olivier was matched by an authentically American Constance Cummings who movingly suggested that the convent-educated Mary had sacrificed her religious faith to her devotion to a touring actor.

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