George Costigan doesn’t sound like a man who’s just come out of a gruelling rehearsal of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s devastating epic of addiction, dysfunction and self-destruction among a family dominated by ageing thespian, James Tyrone. Nor, for that matter, does Brid Ni Neachtain, the veteran Irish actress charged with playing Mary Tyrone, the drug-addicted wife of James, played by Costigan in the Citizens Theatre’s new revival directed by Dominic Hill in co-production with Home, Manchester. As James, Costigan may rule the roost with an iron rod, but he sounds more concerned with the then impending football derby between Liverpool and Everton, with his beloved Blues seemingly the underdogs.
“I hope we lose,” he says. “That way it’ll shake things up and they’ll have to try and sort it out.”
Such bullish pragmatism may or may not be the answer to EFC’s woes, but it’s an attitude that might also be useful to solve the bombastic war of attrition that fuels O’Neill’s play. Set over a single day in 1912, the writer’s semi-autobiographical portrait of the Tyrone clan was first seen in 1956, three years after O’Neill’s death and more than a decade after he wrote it. Winning both a Tony Award and a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, the play unleashes James’ barely contained resentment at being stymied as an actor through selling his soul for a star vehicle that typecast him ever after. As James, Costigan may be at its macho heart, but there are reasons behind how things ended up in such a mess.
“James is the product of desertion by his parents when he was ten years old,” says Costigan. “He’s ruthlessly mean and he fights against that, but can’t help it. It’s something that was bred into him from a very early age. He’s a product of his times. He’s very patrician, and thinks his word is law. On one level you’d probably enjoy meeting him, especially in a bar, where you’d think he was a top bloke, but after a month living with him you’d go, alright, I’ve had enough now.”
The consequences of spending a lifetime with such a tyrant have clearly left their mark on Mary, as Ni Neachtain recognises.
“The play is one summer’s day in the life of this woman who was shy, and who was loved by her father, but who is married to a famous actor and has had to deal with the reality of life on the road,” she says. “Mary is a lonely woman who is addicted to morphine, but doesn’t want to confront her addiction, so she’s become someone who is both absent and present.”
This new look at O’Neill’s masterpiece marks the second collaboration between the Citz and Home, following Hill’s production of Samuel Beckett’s play, Endgame, in 2016. It also marks Costigan’s return to Glasgow for a fifth time with the Citizens Company. This follows his most recent appearance with the company in both runs of Zinnie Harris’ reimagining of Greek tragedy with Oresteia: This Restless House. Costigan could previously be seen in Crime and Punishment in 2013 and King Lear in 2011.
“I keep on coming back because it’s such a wonderful place to work,” says Costigan, who first came to wide-scale prominence when he appeared in Alan Clarke’s big-screen version of Andrea Dunbar’s play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, a revival of which toured to the Citz in January, “and to work with Dominic especially. Scotland’s very privileged to have him.
By contrast, Long Day’s Journey Into Night will be Ni Neachtain’s first appearance on the Gorbals-based stage after spending much of her acting life at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.
“That’s my theatrical home,” she says, “so it’s very exciting to be working in a different theatre.”
Ni Neachtain has appeared in such classic plays at the Abbey as Dancing at Lughnasa, Playboy of the Western World and Juno and the Paycock. She was recently in Jimmy’s Hall, a stage version of Paul Laverty’s film script for Ken Loach about a returning Irish émigré during the Depression who embarks on a quest to open the local dance hall. The production was directed by Graham McLaren, the Scottish director now in charge of the Abbey alongside former National Theatre of Scotland head, Neil Murray. Tellingly, McLaren has often cited the Citz as opening his younger self up to the possibilities of theatre.
“I feel privileged to be at the Citizens,” Ni Neachtain says. “You can try things out, and you’re free to fail. That’s all down to Dominic.”
Long Day’s Journey Into Night will be the final main-stage professional production before the Citizens company moves out to take up residence at Tramway while the Citz undergoes a major refurbishment that will bring its facilities into the twenty-first century. If ever there was a way to go out with a bang, O’Neill’s play is probably it.
“It’s a workout,” Costigan says of the demands put on all involved with the show, “but I’m at the point now where I can’t wait for people to see it. You can read it, but I’m absolutely fascinated to see how it works in performance. On the face of things it’s incredibly depressing, but the power of the writing is incredible. Emotionally, James is not that difficult to play. He’s got a lot to say, but he’s written with such compassion that it’s all there for you. He doesn’t change, whereas Mary changes all the time. She’s a spinning top.”
Ni Neachtain agrees.
“It’s a wonderful challenge as an actor,” she says. “It’s exhausting both physically and emotionally, but it should be. It was exhausting for O’Neill as a writer to create it, and it’s exhausting for the audience as well.”
With a scheduled running time of more than three hours even with some cuts made to the text, the show’s start time has been pulled back to 7pm to accommodate the play’s poetic expanse. Despite its length, neither Costigan or Ni Neachtain are in any way worried about it holding an audience’s attention for such an extended period.
“You’ve never seen writing like this,” says Costigan. “I’ve done Arthur Miller and other American plays, and this is better writing than any of them. I’m sure Dominic bleeds every time he has to cut a line.”
As Ni Neachtain observes, the audience may recognise something of themselves in what is happening onstage.
“It’s a family play,” she says, “and as with any family play, when the audience are watching it, they can’t help but look at aspects of themselves and their own family, and hopefully think, there but for the grace of God go I. It’s about family, it’s about love and it’s about hate, and I think this production will bring out the rawness and the ugliness of all that. It’s one of the best plays ever written. It’s like a piece of music, with peaks and troughs, so as a writer, O’Neill is doing a lot of the work for you. I hope we do it justice, but I think we’re in safe hands.”
Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, April 18-May 5.
The Herald, April12th 2018