David Suchet is a great actor who has been nominated umpteen times for Olivier Awards Best Actor but has never actually won it. His harrowing performance in a role which Olivier himself once played could finally tip the odds in his favour in 2012, though we'll have to wait another 12 months to find out.
O'Neill's autobiographical masterpiece was never intended to be seen in the theatre, and was only put on stage in 1956, three years after his death, in direct violation of his wishes. It requires a delicate touch; the emotions locked in the dysfunctional Tyrone family are so powerful that they don't need to be overplayed. This restraint is one of the hallmarks of veteran director Anthony Page's production, which opened a couple of weeks ago at the Apollo and is due to run until August.
What Page and his excellent actors bring out so well is that the emotion which generates conflict in the Tyrone family is not their hatred but their love for each other. Every blow, every flash of anger, every insult is followed by an immediate apology or retraction, or a 180-degree turn into tenderness and affection. Suchet's performance as the father James Tyrone is a joy to watch; this Shakespeare-quoting ham actor has a jauntiness and a kind of vulnerability that goes with his colossal self-deception about the damage he has inflicted on his wife and sons. It's a performance of great insight, fully matched by Laurie Metcalf as his morphine-addicted wife Mary and by Kyle Soller and Trevor White as their sons Edmund and James. Together, they really come across as a family unit -- something which plays about families often don't quite achieve in the theatre. One of the reasons the Tyrone family is so dysfunctional is that all its members are exclusively focused on each other, obsessed by the family's problems and unable to get to grips successfully with the outside world. Their only solution in Mary's case is her furtive return to drugs, triggered by the news that Edmund has TB. For the three men, the solution is in the whiskey bottle, which Page places on a table bang in the centre of the stage, and around which they circle ominously.
Of course, it's far from cheerful stuff. It's relentlessly bleak, though Page has trimmed the baggy monster of O'Neill's text to under three hours. Was this the reason so many seats were empty on Monday night? I only managed to see the play because I discovered that half-price seats were on offer in the Leicester Square tickets booth. Perhaps the publicity drive for this production has yet to get into top gear on the back of excellent reviews, or possibly it's the 7 pm start time, which may suggest to audiences that the play is going to run for longer than it actually does. Perhaps the eyewatering cost of full price tickets is putting people off. When most tickets cost over £50 at full price, they are out of the reach of most people, including me. Even £30 cuts out a lot of younger London theatregoers, who won't unfortunately get the chance to see acting of this quality very often. However it's rare to see such a great production of a straight play in the West End that isn't a transfer from the subsidised sector, and I hope very much that Nica Burns and her co-producers turn this into a success.
Footnote: Back in 1971 I saw the National Theatre production of this play at the Old Vic, with Laurence Olivier, Constance Cummings, Denis Quilley and Ronald Pickup. Although I remember seeing the play, for some reason I can't summon up any recollection of what Olivier sounded and looked like on stage. I think it's the only live performance of his that I ever went to, so it really bothers me that I can't remember him in the way that I can remember his contemporaries such as Gielgud and Richardson. Theatre is such an ephemeral art that a good memory is essential. If you haven't got one, the best solution is to write a blog.