Taking their time: Brian Cox and Patricia Clarkson in “Long Day’s Journey into Night”. Image: Johan Persson

Long days, longer plays

A production of Eugene O’Neill drags, while an abridged Shakespeare zips along
April 30, 2024

Connecticut, 1912: a once-great actor complains about his drunken, unimpressive son. Westminster, 1402: a once-great king complains about his drunken, unimpressive son. The West End’s two biggest openings in March, both of which run to June, each tackle weary fathers and wayward heirs.

Our patriarchs are played by theatre legends-turned-screen stars. Succession’s Brian Cox leads Jeremy Herrin’s production of Long Day’s Journey into Night, as domineering thesp James Tyrone. Robert Icke’s crammed-together adaptation of Henry IV: Parts I and II, repackaged as Player Kings, offers two competing father figures for the prodigal Prince Hal. Richard Coyle, whom 1990s kids remember as Jeff from Coupling, plays Henry IV, but the show is headlined by Ian McKellen as Falstaff, Hal’s preferred, indulgent and ultimately flawed mentor in medieval London’s demimonde.

Long Day’s Journey into Night is the weaker production. Eugene O’Neill’s American classic has always been a long play: he specialises in the gradual unravelling of domestic dreams. In Long Day’s Journey, he made the uncharacteristic choice to observe the classical unities, setting a family’s disintegration over a single day. In their opening lines, the Tyrone family looks functional, even affectionate, with James and his wife Mary still flirting after 35 years of marriage. By the final moments, however, the family should have fallen apart—as Mary’s suppressed morphine addiction surfaces, her favourite son Edmund faces a TB diagnosis and James and his under-employed elder son bury themselves in drink. In great productions, this progression is incremental yet inevitable. 

Herrin’s production instead treads water for three and a half hours. Patricia Clarkson plays Mary with lively intelligence, but in her perma-elegance Clarkson seems reluctant to disintegrate on stage into the “dope fiend” her husband repeatedly assures us is haunting his house. Even in the play’s final moments, when we are told that she is in the grip of addiction, Clarkson wanders onto the stage like a ballerina rather than tramp. She is not helped by Cox’s ropey grasp of his lines.

Louisa Harland, a star thanks to Derry Girls and the best thing in Herrin’s recent Ulster American, is bizarrely underused in a small comic role as the Tyrones’ “amiable, ignorant, clumsy” maid, cracking quips about “the old country”. Harland should be leading shows, not serving drinks and Irish clichés. Only Laurie Kynaston as the doomed Edmund truly draws us in. 

Brian Cox has no need to prove anything. He certainly didn’t need to do this disappointing production

Even Kynaston, however, can’t save the long final act in which Cox-as-Tyrone becomes a mouthpiece for O’Neill’s swipes at other playwrights, with Cox offering little sense of the personal degradation driving this literary rage. Tyrone considers himself a failed actor because he has given his career to one, money-making role. Cox, long versatile and respected before Succession, has no such need to prove anything. He certainly didn’t need to do this disappointing production.

Player Kings, by contrast, is a lively and fast-paced tale of masculinity. I’ve never been drawn to this most male of Shakespeare’s popular plays, or to Falstaff, a creature defined by his appetites and his rejection of the ethics of self-discipline. Icke, however, shows us an appealing gang of lost boys attempting to build a family, fractured by outbursts of shocking violence. These are alienated men, repeatedly trying to come together only to break back into brutality—Toheeb Jimoh’s Hal most alienated of them all. It is in this portrayal of loneliness that the play feels most successfully relevant and modern. 

Icke also drowns his production in references to our own Windsors. The opening contrasts a nervy Henry IV at his coronation—Coyle styled as a Charles III lookalike—with Hal-aka-Harry stripping off at a pool table. Combining the textual roles of Westmoreland and Warwick into a single chief courtier, Annette McLaughlin coddles and comforts the king in a Camilla hairdo. During a crisis for the monarchy, surtitles knowingly tell us that the royals “have not been seen in public” (like many Icke productions, the stage is framed by screens with retro digital fonts, summaries appearing like Ceefax pages). This coy topicality can be tiresome, although I enjoyed the shades of Captain Tom as Falstaff monetised his stolen valour.

McKellen’s Falstaff is a man pretending not to be lonely: a perfect model for our atomised age. (He reminded me of an old soak propping up the bar at the Groucho Club, rather than returning to an empty home.) Yet like Long Day’s Journey into Night, this production is stolen by the younger man. Jimoh’s Hal is thoughtful, dignified and seething with underappreciated ambition, a worthy follow-up to last year’s Romeo at the Almeida theatre. We see the soldier beneath the boy, his flint-hearted final rejection of Falstaff no real surprise. Like every transition in Icke’s breakneck production, Jimoh’s shifts between set pieces and his competing personalities can be too rapid—he could learn to take the odd pause—but he always brings us along with him.

An abridged version of these two plays inevitably sacrifices something. We lose Glendower, the archbishop of York and most of Kate Percy’s scenes. Clare Perkins, who played a much more textured pub landlady in 2021’s The Wife of Willesden, deserves more material as Mistress Quickly. But this is bright, engaging work—for Shakespeare newcomers and experts alike. 

On press night, I emerged from Player Kings to find the crowd letting out at the same time as Long Day’s Journey next door. Player Kings had started half an hour earlier than Long Day’s Journey. It felt infinitely shorter.