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Posts Tagged ‘Eugene O’Neill’

American playwright Sophie Treadwell wrote this expressionistic play in 1928, not long after Eugene O’Neill’s expressionistic masterpiece Emperor Jones. It was based on a real murder case, and its premiere provided Clark Gable with his Broadway debut. I first saw it in its last London outing twenty-five years ago, directed by Stephen Daldry at the Lyttleton Theatre. I thought then, as I do now, that it must have been way ahead of its time 90 years ago. It’s feminist aesthetic and focus on mental health means it still resonates today.

In ten scenes over ninety minutes we follow our protagonist – ‘young woman’ – doing what society expects of her, from the office job she doesn’t like, or do well, to marriage to the boss who repels her and the birth of the child she struggles to bond with, before she turns and is propelled to an unexpected and tragic conclusion.

Each scene in Natalie Abrahami’s production starts by the parting of screens to reveal locations which are mirrored diagonally above. Miriam Buether’s clever design is accompanied by a brooding mechanical soundscape from Ben & Max Ringham and striking lighting by Jack Knowles. The scene changes are a bit slow, but its an immersive experience nonetheless, though I did find myself admiring the stagecraft and performances at the expense of emotional engagement with the story.

Elizabeth Berrington is hugely impressive in the lead role, at first in fear of just about everything, growing enough confidence to betray her husband Jones, played well, with period behaviour, by Jonathan Livingstone. In a supporting cast of ten, there is an excellent cameo from Denise Black as Helen’s mother.

Treadwelll wrote many more plays, with a diverse range of themes and styles, but this is just about the only one that’s ever been revived. She found it increasingly difficult to get her work produced, and many remained unpublished. Neglected in a man’s world it seems, which makes it even more timely today. It would be good to see more of them.

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This is the play that started my obsession with the work of American playwright Eugene O’Neill, more than thirty years ago in a Jonathan Miller production with Jack Lemon as James Tyrone and Kevin Spacey as James Tyrone Jnr. I was the same age as James Jnr. Now I’m the same age as James Snr. Subsequent productions had Timothy West and David Suchet as James Snr. The 2000 West End production had Jessica Lange as Mary Tyrone, with Olivia Coleman as the Irish maid. Now its the turn of Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville.

It’s O’Neill’s most biographical play, which he insisted wasn’t published until 25 years after his death, and never staged, but his widow didn’t honour this wish. It’s a long play, 3.5 hours in this Richard Eyre production, part of the Bristol Old Vic’s 250th anniversary programme. It takes place over one day and night in one room in the Tyrone home. James is a Shakespearean actor, drinks a lot and is a bit of a bully. His wife became addicted to morphine during her recent illness. Youngest son Edmund is seriously ill. His elder brother has followed his father into acting, more by default than anything else. The only other character is Cathleen, the Irish maid, whose scenes bring some light relief to what is otherwise a rather depressing piece.

Rob Howell’s impressionistic design is beautiful, also lightening the gloom of the play. The performances were a touch tentative at first, but became more natural as the play unfolded. Jeremy Irons’ James is an appropriately charismatic presence as James. The wonderful Lesley Manville navigates Mary’s decline delicately, with carefully controlled emotionality. Rory Keenan plays a spiky James Jnr, under the influence of alcohol most of the time, and Matthew Beard a fragile Edmund, both excellent. I very much liked Jessica Regan’s cameo as Cathleen.

This is a high quality revival and its good to see another Bristol Old Vic production in the West End, but it didn’t engage me emotionally or maintain my attention as it should, probably more to do with me and the night I went. Don’t let me put you off.

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I can’t begin to imagine what the audience thought of this early expressionistic Eugene O’Neill play when it was first staged on Broadway 93 years ago. It probably wouldn’t make it to Broadway or the West End today (unless it had a Hollywood star, obviously). It’s only been done here in English once in my 35 years of London theatregoing, in 2012 at Southwark Playhouse – a terrific production. So here we are just three years later in the much bigger Old Vic.

It starts in the testosterone fuelled engine house of a transatlantic liner with Yank, the central character, ruling the roost as they drink heavily. A rich girl who we first see on deck turns up in the engine house as if visiting a zoo. This has a profound impact on Yank and when he’s back in New York he’s railing against the upper class and gets arrested. Prison confirms his beliefs and he joins a union upon release, but is thrown out on suspicion of being a spy, ending up in a zoo where he talks to and releases an ape, who kills him.

It’s not a great play, but it is fascinating (as is O’Neill’s previous expressionistic piece, Emperor Jones) and way ahead of its time. A review at the time apparently said ‘before The Hairy Ape we had plays, now we have drama’. Left-wing drama on Broadway almost 100 years ago! I can’t think of a better director than Richard Jones and his use here of stylised movement (choreographer Aletta Collins!) is particularly effective. Stewart Laing’s striking design creates a claustrophobic atmosphere in the below deck scenes, with stunning and occasionally blinding lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin.

Bertie Carvel seems taller and bigger and larger than life, with huge presence as Yank. He’s surrounded by a fine cast of twelve actors and two actresses, but its really Yank’s play and Carvel gives a towering performance.

It doesn’t have the intensity and intimacy of the Southwark Playhouse production, but its good to see it on a major stage, if a little too soon after the last outing. 

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I’ve been a fan of Eugene O’Neill for a very long time, but I don’t recall a production of this play in London, which is rather baffling as it shows another side of O’Neill and is really rather good. It comes two-thirds through his playwriting career, but it’s much lighter than Morning Becomes Elektra and The Iceman Cometh, the plays immediately before and after respectively. I’m not sure I’d call it a comedy, as many seem to, but it does have plenty of funny moments – and a lot of fireworks; literally rather than metaphorically.

The story takes place on Independence Day and revolves around Richard, the Miller’s teenage middle son, and is really a coming of age tale. He’s a bright, very well read boy whose version of adolescence is at the intense, existentialist end of the spectrum. He’s in love with neighbour Muriel and walks around quoting literature, some considered so inappropriate that her dad David seeks to drive a wedge between them. His elder brother Arthur (Arthur Miller!) leads him astray and then abandons him at a bar frequented by prostitutes. When Richard comes home drunk, it challenges his otherwise tolerant parents. There’s a sub-plot involving the relationship between Richard’s paternal Auntie Lily and maternal Uncle Sid, which is deadlocked by the latter’s liking of a drink.

In Natalie Abrahami’s production, O’Neill himself is an ever present ghost, often mouthing the dialogue he wrote and perhaps emphasising that the play may be autobiographical. Dick Bird’s extraordinary design has sand pouring out of the waterfront house, with a bit if a coup d’theatre as water flows later. George Mackay is hugely impressive as Richard, capturing the the full range of teenage emotions. Janine Dee shows her versatility yet again as mum Essie Miller, and I was impressed by Martin Marquez (John’s lesser known brother) as dad Nat Miller. Dominic Rowan is very believable as a drunk and David Annen is excellent as the omnipresent playwright, neighbour David and bar tender George.

It took a while to take off, but I fell in love with it nonetheless. The Young Vic proving to be indispensable yet again.

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Three short plays by favourite playwright Eugene O’Neil with favourite actor Ruth Wilson in the lovely Hoxton (music) Hall. I was seriously over-excited going in, but deeply satisfied coming out.

This is a perfect match of play(s) and venue. Hoxton Hall is tall but narrow, with a wrought iron balcony on three sides. They’ve put in rickety old chairs for this production, and the multi-tier stage recedes some way, making the performance area look surprisingly big. Richard Kent’s design makes full use of the space, with perfect period costumes, superb lighting by Neil Austin and a six-piece jazz band. The atmosphere of apartments in an early 20th century US city is brilliantly created.

The first play is virtually a monologue by Wilson as a woman whose world is in decline after marrying an unfaithful loser. She takes a short while to get into her stride, but becomes mesmerizing as the story unfolds. The plays are linked by terrific songs from Nicola Walker as the stage is reset. In no time, we’re with prostitute and single mother Rose, suffering with TB and abused by her lover / pimp. She’s rescued by neighbour and bank robber Tim, but not for long. The third play takes us to a black family where the mother is dying and son Dreamy is on the run. He has to choose between dying mom’s bedside and escape.

Though best known for his lengthy epics, O’Neil is able to pack a lot of drama into these three short plays which, even with musical interludes, add up to less than 90 minutes. I’ve had my eye on director Sam Yates since a pair of superb productions at the Finborough in 2011-12 (Cornelius & Mixed Marriage) and his staging of the first two of these is outstanding. Ruth Wilson, wonderful in the same two plays, directs the third very well. There are two excellent performances from Simon Coombs, both criminals, both on the run, and Zubin Varla is great as Steve in the second play, and plays a mean sax too.

They’ve taken over the whole ground floor, with a period design bar named after O’Neil’s sometime NYC haunt. I don’t know who Found Productions are, but they are to be congratulated on a magnificent evening of drama and first class theatrical craftsmanship. Brilliant.

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Soon after this Eugene O’Neill play started, I was thinking how experimental it was; how different to all his other plays. Then I remembered Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape and realised what an experimental playwright he really was – though this is still very different, largely because of the extensive use of soliloquies, where the actors switch from talking to each other to talking direct to the audience.

Nina loses Gordon, the love of her life, before they’ve got going, when he goes to war and never returns. Family friend Charles is obsessed with her, but she choses doctor Edmund to impregnate her and hapless Sam to marry her & bring up baby Gordon with her, with the on-off affair with Edmund continuing. When Gordon grows up and Sam dies, she’s faced with choosing between Charles and Edmund again.

This must have been radical stuff in 1928, when it ran five hours. It’s pretty radical 85 years later, though more because the soliloquies still make it original. It’s mercifully now just over three hours; the first half is still overlong, but it redeems itself in the second. I couldn’t make my mind up if the production was sending it up a bit, but I gave it the benefit of the doubt. It’s not an entirely satisfying evening, but it is an intriguing one.

In as fine a set of performances as you’d wish for, Anne-Marie Duff shines as complicated new woman Nina, but she’s well matched by a superb turn from Charles Edwards as, well, Charles, and a lovely characterisation of Sam by Jason Watkins. American Darren Pettie’s UK debut is certainly an auspicious one; his performance as Edmund is very compelling. Soutra Gilmour’s terrific design is a Frank Lloyd Wright style home in the first act and transforms cleverly from a NYC 5th Avenue apartment to a boat to a pier-side in the second.

If only they’d been even more radical with the scissors and trimmed another 20/30 minutes from the first half, it would have been a lot sharper. As it is, it’s a flawed but fascinating glimpse at a play that was clearly way ahead of its time and still seems original today.

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This isn’t one of Eugene O’Neil’s best plays, chiefly because it’s too melodramatic, though this production at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith is so good it makes it seem as if it is.

Seventy something Ephraim marries for the third time, to a girl who’s about the same age as Eben, his son by his second wife. Eben and the two sons by Ephraim’s first wife, Simeon and Peter (keep up!), can see their inheritance slipping away. For some reason, Eben buys out his brothers’ share of the farm on which they live (even though it looks like they won’t inherit it) and Simeon and Peter head west to join the gold rush. Eben stays to fight his corner, his dad and his new step-mother – until, that is, he falls for her and fathers her baby. Of course, it all ends in tears – well, wails really.

In the first 30 minutes, as the story is set up, we just see the three brothers. Mikel Murfi and Fergus O’Donnell are simply mesmerizing as hirsute elder brothers Simeon and Peter and its hard for Morgan Watkins to play the ‘softer’ Eben against this; he comes into his own though when Abbie arrives and his lust for her takes over. Finbar Lynch is a commanding Ephraim, at his best in the christening party scene where everything revolves around him (literally at times). Abbie is a complex character – defiant fortune hunter, passionate lover, lost soul – and Denise Gough plays her brilliantly. You’d be struggling to get five performances this good on any stage.

I wasn’t convinced by Ian MacNeil’s design at first. The house front disappears soon after the start, four mobile boxes open up to become rooms in the house, a screen at the back changes colour with the time of day and the stage rear and wings are in clear view. There’s also a platform jutting out half-way into the stalls with steps out to the side for entrances and exits. Somehow, though, it eventually made sense and its movement contributed much to the flow of the play (even though from the front stalls, entrances, exits and speeches from the platform were irritating).

Sean Holmes’ masterly direction, with brilliant music (Ry Cooder?) played live on guitar by Jason Baughan, brings this slice of 19th century New England to life and I was gripped throughout. A contender for the year’s best revival methinks and only 10 more days to catch it.

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This is the second show I’ve caught up with late in its run and what a pleasure it is to see serious work of this quality in the commercial sector. This autobiographical play is probably Eugene O’Neill’s most depressing, featuring the dysfunctional Tyrone family, drugs and an awful lot of alcohol; not the most obvious way to spend a hot and sunny July evening!

James Tyrone is a Shakespearian actor who’s got caught up in more populist but profitable work. His wife is a drug addict and his youngest son is seriously ill. His eldest son has followed him into the profession but spends more time in bars and brothels. It’s extraordinary that this could be staged in the mid-1050’s! O’Neill wrote it 15 years earlier and died leaving instructions that it shouldn’t be published for 25 years after his death and was never to be staged. Neither wish were respected. The play has been cut for this production, though you can’t really see the joins and it doesn’t feel as if it has lost anything as a result. It’s as powerful a family drama and you’ll ever see.

The action takes place in one location, a summer home beautifully designed by Lez Brotherston, on the same August day in 1912 – after breakfast, before & after lunch and late at night. It becomes more tragic and intense as the day progresses. The strength of Anthony Page’s impeccable production lies in four well matched and stunning performances. David Suchet switches between benevolent autocrat and bully with total believability. Laurie Metcalf breaks your heart as the mother lost to addiction. Kyle Soller adds to his recent outstanding performances in The Faith Machine, The Government Inspector and The Glass Menagerie to make it a quartet of beautifully realised characterisations. Trevor White’s sparring with his dad was as real as his protection of his little brother was moving.

This is classy but risky stuff for the West End, so nine gold stars to the nine producers it took to bring it to us!

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I don’t think this rare Eugene O’Neill play has had a production here for 25 years – and that was in German, part of Thelma Holt’s international season at the NT. In fact, I don’t remember any other production in London in my theatre-going lifetime. Like The Emperor Jones, written just before it (and 20 years before Long Day’s Journey Into Night), it’s an expressionistic piece with a strong social(ist) message.

Yank (representing the working man?) is the natural leader amongst the stokers on a transatlantic liner, where the play starts. A visit by a posh girl, an industrialists daughter who seems to regard her sojourn below deck as an exciting adventure to see another species in their natural habitat, results in her insulting him – ‘a filthy beast’. When in port in NYC, Yank’s walk on 5th Avenue is just as alien for him and, with the insult ringing in his ears, he hits out, resulting in a prison spell. Here he hears of a new union which he seeks to join on release, but his unbelievability means they think he’s a spy and reject him. He heads for the zoo where attempts to communicate with a hairy ape (filthy beast) result in tragedy.

It’s nothing like his intense naturalistic dramas, and it’s not a great play, but it is fascinating if you’re interested in 20th century drama, particularly American drama, and O’Neill in particular. At Southwark Playhouse, every aspect of this production comes together to create a stunning staging – director Kate Budgen. Jean Chan’s design makes brilliant use of this atmospheric space in traverse form with a central crossing. A grill and some smoke conjours up the engine room, a pair of ropes the ship’s deck and a handful of hospital screens, rope replacing fabric, turn into seven prison cells. Crowded 5th Avenue is more crowded with each actor carrying a manequin head. Richard Howell’s lighting does much to aid these transformations, as does Tom Gibbons sound scape (the final scene, in virtual darkness, is particularly effective). The opening is also superb, as the men seem to rise as one from the bowels of the ship – this, and the rest of Lucy Cullingford’s  movement work, is outstanding.

There isn’t a fault in the casting and sometime Corrie bad boy Bill Ward is a revelation as Yank. It couldn’t be much further from his last job, Million Dollar Bash, as the only non-singing character. Here he brings huge passion and conviction to the role and the transition when he leaves his comfort zone, and his leadership position, is completely believable.

A must in my book – a fringe theatre showing how talented people can create great theatre on a shoestring. An unmissable opportunity to catch that rare species – an early 20th century play with bite.

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These three short early Eugene O’Neil plays, when played together as they are here, provide an evocative picture of seafaring life in the early 20th century. The Old Vic tunnels provide the perfect atmosphere, aided by harbour ‘installations’ (barrels and nets!) and men shovelling coal in a side tunnel as you enter. They’re far from O’Neill’s best work, but for anyone interested in this titan of modern drama, they’re a must-see.

The first two plays are set at sea (so seamlessly in this production, I thought it was one play!). In the first, Bound East for Cardiff, the ship enters stormy waters resulting in the death of one of the crew. In the second, In the Zone, set at a time of war, a seaman who is ‘different’ is suspected of being a spy and as his true story is revealed he is broken. In the third play, The Long Voyage Home, we’re in a port bar where a naïve Swedish seaman is drugged and fleeced by the bar owner in collusion with a prostitute and assorted lowlife.

They are slight stories but they do add up to something much more than the parts. They’re well staged by Kenneth Hoyt (the opening of the first is particularly thrilling) and well performed. You can almost smell the sea & the sweat and the characterisations are surprisingly deep given their short length. I was particularly impressed by the performances in the third play, with Amanda Boxer as a prostitute, Raymond M Sage as the Swedish seaman and Eddie Webber as Joe.

The best of the three shows I’ve seen in the Old Vic Tunnels and well worth catching.

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