The week in theatre: Long Day’s Journey Into Night; The Lover/The Collection; The Divine Mrs S – review

<span>Patricia Clarkson, left, with Louisa Harland, brings ‘exceptional subtlety’ to Long Day’s Journey Into Night.</span><span>Photograph: Johan Persson</span>
Patricia Clarkson, left, with Louisa Harland, brings ‘exceptional subtlety’ to Long Day’s Journey Into Night.Photograph: Johan Persson

Long Day’s Journey Into Night shoulders itself on to the stage: shaggy, heavy-footed, a creature of the last century. Yet braying prophetically. Eugene O’Neill wrote the play between 1939 and 1941 as an act of “old sorrow, written in tears and blood”. He didn’t want it performed but his third wife, against his wishes, authorised a posthumous production in 1956. The rawly autobiographical work features a mother addicted to morphine, a father entranced by memories of himself as a classical actor, one tubercular and one alcoholic son; the pain of it can be gauged by the fact that a dead baby is called Eugene. It also provides an unforgettable image of an American mother: a “dope fiend” in a rocking chair.

Jeremy Herrin’s production is careful, slowly gathering – and three-and-a-half hours long. The opening scenes are muted, not so much anguished as anxious; Lizzie Clachan’s marine-coloured clapboard design is austere and confined. The great sound of the foghorn out at sea – the key note of a family adrift – is no more than a spectral whisper and the dialogue often falters; when power does switch on, it is at first in the monologues. Solo confessions are the motor of the play but they gain in intensity with a greater sense of family – of inherited and inescapable dysfunction – than there is here. The wounds look grave, not – as they should – fatal.

Yet, oh, the sheer force of writing and of acting: what other dramatist could have come up with the description of “fog people” for characters so stranded from reality and each other, so woozily dreaming about the past? Laurie Kynaston and Daryl McCormack come to spar convincingly as the two uneasily fond brothers. Louisa Harland, of Derry Girls, who was so strong recently in Ulster American, shines as the maid who sees the truth and laughs in its face. Still, the core of the drama is in the parents. Brian Cox, in braces and shirt sleeves, is strong and bluff, good on the hints of the old ham, yet too quick to fire up from the start: his own journey looks insufficiently long, and the echoes of his Succession role too evident (there is even a line about being trapped in a familiar role). Yet Patricia Clarkson brings exceptional subtlety to the role of the mother: lost, manipulative, lying. Delicately vague, she suddenly flashes into vehemence. She provides a heart-stopping moment at the end of the play, which O’Neill considered “the greatest scene I have ever written”. To deliver the final line – a moment of dreamlike radiance – she sits on the edge of the stage and swings her legs up. It is as if she were young again.

Harold Pinter wrote The Lover and The Collection for television, in the early 1960s. They might have been written to contrast with O’Neill’s drama. Short, stripped of explanation, motored by crisp exchanges not by monologues, they teasingly provide an argument for being slightly bewildered in the theatre.

Sex games are what is mainly happening. Not as in pampas grass and inflatable dolls (though some tom-tom drums are strangely suggestive). This is the winking and bullying, the joyful encouragement and crushing disappointment that couples inflict on each other, not only to gee up bedtime but to find out who they are.

These are more than period pieces but Lindsay Posner directs with an eye to perfect reconstruction of the era. Rightly, since Pinter’s intrigues, though renowned for verbal tautness, are also strewn with visual clues: a giveaway pair of high heels is crucial. The opening line of the evening – “Is your lover coming today?” – depends for its effect on being torpedoed into an utterly respectable sitting room. Peter McKintosh’s set and costumes are immaculate. In The Lover a couple playing a double game have a sofa with two headrests and two cigarette boxes. In The Collection Claudie Blakley is – what better for disguises – a fashion designer, in Mary Quantish bob and geometrically printed tunic. There are touches of Hockney in a vase of tulips.

Blakley uses the distinctive rasp of her voice like a cat’s tongue, caressing but not smooth. She is also excellent at what might be called the Angela Rayner moment, when she crosses her legs and makes the entire audience believe they hear the susurration of her stockings. Mathew Horne of Gavin and Stacey (“Gavin’s in it!” yelped an excited woman on her phone outside the theatre) is also very good: levelly, unreadably blank. And David Morrissey strikes a bold new register. He arrives in a three-piece suit, speaking as if his words too were waistcoated; the smile on his face might be that of a newscaster transmitting calm while about to announce a catastrophe. His slowly crumples into bewilderment. With jokes en route. There is less threat than usual with Pinter: here the playwright puts the spring into enigma.

April De Angelis, author 30 years ago of the vivacious Playhouse Creatures about 17th-century English actresses, has alighted on another rich theatrical subject in Sarah Siddons for her new play, The Divine Mrs S. Painted by Joshua Reynolds as the Tragic Muse in 1784, and said by William Hazlitt to excite not so much admiration as wonder, Siddons was an innovative performer and a celebrity caught in the snare of being a working mother at a time when actresses were routinely pawed by their bosses, and women who resisted niceness were considered mad. What time could that have been?

The casting of Rachael Stirling as Siddons puts fire into Anna Mackmin’s fitful production. Stirling draws audiences to her without being clammy. Her wit is instinctive, not simply in the delivery of lines but in the way she holds herself and moves, with a graceful spiralling. It is hard for her to demonstrate the new naturalism of Siddons’s acting, which looks less effortless in the age of the television mutter and twitch, but was a striking contrast to the ritualised 18th-century style demonstrated with panache by Dominic Rowan. As Siddons’s brother, John Philip Kemble, a theatre manager and actor, Rowan yodels his vowels and, with legs bandied and arm aloft, looks as if he is stuck in a perpetual fencing match.

Despite enjoyable episodes of backstage buoyancy, De Angelis’s research can too often be heard pacing heavily behind the action. In danger of being lost amid the whirl of women’s disappointments is the poet and playwright Joanna Baillie (1762-1851), who is commemorated with a plaque near the theatre. Convincingly presented as having been cheated of just acclaim as an “edgy” (De Angelis larks around cleverly with anachronisms) dramatist, Baillie is the most interesting character on stage. Incarnated by Eva Feiler with a fascinating bunched-up intensity, her body seems to be merely a provisional receptacle for the words that need to burst out of her.

Star ratings (out of five)
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
The Lover/The Collection ★★★★
The Divine Mrs S ★★★