Q. What do you get when you mix a naturalistic drama with an expressionistic set design, coupled with touches of Brechtian staging and melodramatic acting?
A. You get the Sydney Theatre Company’s current production of Eugene O’Neill’s classic play Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
The STC’s much publicised run of what many consider the best American play of the 20th century is an eclectic mess of differing styles. The end product lacks any sense of unified approach to the play between the key elements of acting, direction and design.
The internationalisation of the Sydney Theatre Company continues with Long Day’s Journey Into Night, as this is a co-production between the STC and the Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland’s oldest professional theatre company. The four principal characters consist of two American and two Australian actors, the most notable being William Hurt and Robyn Nevin. The show will play in Portland soon after its Sydney run.
As was the case in the recent Australian tour of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, starring Sir Ian McKellan, there is no guarantee that the stars will shine the brightest of all. In that production, Roger Rees out-performed McKellan and in this show, Australia’s Robyn Nevin outshines William Hurt.
This production by the STC is decorated, indeed. Eugene O’Neill won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936 and was a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner, including one for Long Day’s Journey Into Night. William Hurt has been nominated three times for an Academy Award for Best Actor, winning in 1985 for Kiss of the Spider Woman, while Robyn Nevin is the doyenne of Australian theatre and one of our most honoured and skilled stage actors.
Along with all this comes much hype and along with the hype comes responsibility. When you mount a production of this calibre, you can’t afford to produce anything but the very best. But what I witnessed several performances into its four-week season left many unanswered questions.
Why did Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set consist of two large angled beams and a reddish frame downstage? The distortion of line and shape, coupled with an abstract, minimalistic, almost bare stage with only a few set pieces, screamed expressionism. And here lay the problem. O’Neill’s days dabbling in expressionism were over by the time he wrote Long Day’s Journey Into Night and the Sydney Theatre Company’s expressionistic set design jarred awkwardly with the playwright’s naturalistic, often gut-wrenching text. As a result, the set largely failed to render the play’s location for the audience, the Tyrone summer home in Connecticut. A naturalistic drama the quality of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night requires a naturalistic set. Period. (Speaking of period, the costumes, props and dialogue indicated the year 1912, while the set was so abstract it was timeless).
Andrew Upton’s direction also allowed for moments of Brechtian staging thrown in the mix. A reference to the hallway in the set being in the audience was farcical. Edmund running off stage through the house, in the process breaking the fourth wall, was ridiculous, and his returning dialogue to the set on the downstage left apron alienated (no pun intended) many in the dress circle who couldn’t see the action. Sight lines is usually covered in Direction 101. However, I could see William Hurt for twenty minutes side-stage, but off the set, in the final act. The props table was visible, too. Was it a polished performance? With a generous six week rehearsal period, I would have preferred not to have seen dropped props and dropped lines in the play, either.
The final act of Long Day’s Journey Into Night verges on a heightened, slightly melodramatic form of naturalism, where Mary’s addiction to morphine takes her to another place and the men cope by getting drunker and drunker. Yet the acting here was mostly strong and faithful to the text. It was in the first two acts that Todd Van Voris, in particular, overstated the role of James Tyrone Jnr. Here there were far too many instances of melodramatic hand gestures and unimaginative finger-pointing between characters. Upton’s direction also offered numerous occasions where characters jumped suddenly into mini-tantrums that didn’t allow for a natural build up of dramatic tension.
As a result, character believability suffered. Robyn Nevin’s commanding portrayal of Mary Tyrone made empathy with her character easy. Not so the case, however, with James Snr or his two sons James Jnr and Edmund. O’Neill’s play, at roughly three and a half hours with interval in the theatre, is difficult enough for a modern audience without struggling to connect with characters. At times, it was a battle identifying and engaging with the men of the Tyrone family. The STC’s decision to have only one interval either side of 90 and 100 minutes respectively, didn’t help much either. Many in the audience became very restless in the final act, some even fell asleep.
All up, the Sydney Theatre Company’s production simply doesn’t do justice to one of the great American plays of the 20th century. William Hurt or not, for those in the audience it truly was a long journey, indeed.