First published in The Times, Saturday April 21 2018
“Enough is not as good as a feast!” cries Edmund Tyrone (Lorn Macdonald), tossing back the latest in a long line of whisky shots. In an age of rapid-fire 90-minute plays with no interval, a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece at the Citizens certainly feels like a good old-fashioned theatrical banquet, albeit a well-oiled one.
Long before the interval drinks take effect, there is something intoxicating about the long succession of quarrels, pleas, revelations and recriminations that form the structure of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Characters are endlessly told to “shut up” or “hold your tongue” – words pour and pour, arguments circling back on themselves, even as the tidemarks recede on the precious whisky bottles of James Tyrone Snr (George Costigan).
Pic: Tim Morozzo
The blend was famously too rich even for the play’s author, who hoped that the deeply personal work, based on his own family’s experience of tragedy and addiction, would be locked away and not performed until 25 years after his death. Nonetheless, Dominic Hill’s painstaking, fluent production for the Citizens in association with Home, Manchester, exerts a magnetism that holds its audience spellbound for the bulk of the show’s three-hour running time.
The quartet of actors playing the doomed Tyrone family does a fine job of harnessing O’Neill’s angry poetry, creating real, flawed individuals who are by turns infuriating, repellent even, and finally desperately sad. Bríd Ní Neactain is incredibly moving as Mary, the morphine-addicted mother, whose desperate pleas for company and listening ears disintegrate into a looped refrain about her convent upbringing and prayers to the Blessed Virgin while she wanders the family house like a ghost, clutching her wedding dress.
Pic: Tim Morozzo
Macdonald and Sam Phillips make for a wonderfully dynamic double act as the sons, Edmund and Jamie, the former physically frail yet clear-sighted, the latter self-hating and destructive. Costigan, meanwhile, wrings pathos from his self-pitying patriarch while Dani Heron provides a few moments of much-needed leavening humour in her role as the outspoken housemaid, Cathleen.
This being Hill and the Citz, the play’s action does not take place in an atmosphere of realism. In a work that endlessly references “ghosts haunting the past”, there is something of the haunted house about Tom Piper’s set, a skeleton of a building, starkly lit by Ben Ormerod. Far from sinister, however, the production’s final mood is mournful. After all the stormy encounters, we are left with a sense of toxic interdependence and a family clinging together for dear life as the fog, both real and metaphorical, engulfs them.