10 May 2018.
If ever a house was not a home, this is it. An outline of a structure, nothing more than a wooden frame with plastic sheeting for walls. A place both insecure and transparent. Eugene O’Neill’s fraught and feuding Tyrone family find shelter within this New England summer house but no peace.
Even if you’re not familiar with O’Neill’s raw slow-burning (and semi-autobiographical) account of a family in meltdown, Tom Piper’s skeletal design prepares you for what’s to come. For the inhabitants of this house there will be no hiding place from each other or themselves. The thin, see through walls expose the household to scrutiny, it’s clearly possible to be overheard and anyone’s movements can be tracked as their footsteps echo across the wooden floors and stairs. Occasionally, sound is deliberately distorted to create a sense of disorientation, with music and voices from within the guts of the house unnaturally amplified or reverberating.
Although the play follows the family over one August day, in Dominic Hill’s production, the warmth and brightness of the summer sun seems to penetrate the house only fleetingly. Light is rationed and there’s a chilly uneasiness.
Even within the deceptively cosy opening moments, where James Tyrone fusses lovingly over his wife Mary there’s an ominous underlying anxiety. Hill skillfully retains that nervous tension throughout the production, slowly building towards a shattering conclusion.
All hopelessly in denial, every family member struggles with some burden or flaw – the miserly father, the morphine-addicted mother, the bitter eldest son and his consumption-gripped brother. Mary’s surreptitious drug-taking is not the only futile attempt to numb the pain, as whiskey sloshes from bottle to glass with increasing abandon. Only Cathleen the cheerful but gobby maid seems immune to the gloom, and her blunt interventions offer brief bursts of hearty humour.
Nothing seems to settle or resolve. Everything is picked apart, and never put back together again. “That’s what makes it so hard for all of us. We can’t forget”. There are regular (though unsustained) displays of affection, and the production emphasises there is genuine love between them. It just doesn’t stop their urge to lash out and inflict hurt.
The excellent cast are fully attuned to the disharmony of the play. George Costigan’s James is a finely judged patriarch, proud but increasingly disappointed in life. As his eldest son, Sam Phillips adds a stinging streak of nastiness to the feckless charmer James Jr. Everything though seems to revolve around Bríd Ní Neachtain’s fragile mother Mary. She holds your attention throughout with a sympathetic, deeply sensitive performance. It’s painfully heart-breaking to watch as she slowly unravels, hands aflutter, clutching at the air and ceaselessly chattering in an effort to distract from her plight.
While some may balk at the thought of over three hours of theatre, this is a high quality binge-watch. The first ninety minutes flew by and while the second half can be harrowing it’s never less than gripping. It’s an intense production that does full justice to O’Neill’s most personal of works, powerfully evoking a broken and heartsick household where familiarity has become more of a curse than a bond.
Images by Tim Morozzo.