Jeremy Irons, Lesley Manville End Their 'Long Day's Journey Into Night' in Beverly Hills

LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT Production Still - Publicity - H 2018
Hugo Glendinning

"It makes you confident, it makes you insecure, it takes you all over the place," says Oscar nominee Manville of the Eugene O'Neill classic, which ends its tour at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

When the latest revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night closed at the Bristol Old Vic in 2016, director Richard Eyre and his stars, Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville, were happy to put Eugene O’Neill’s prolix 1941 Pulitzer Prize-winning epic to bed. But they were even happier to resurrect it two years later on London's West End before taking it to the Brooklyn Academy of Music last month and now to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, June 8 through July 1.

“It clarified it enormously for all of us,” Irons tells THR of the hiatus. “We had the experience of having played the scenes so we knew the play in a way you don’t when you’re first learning it. And we could therefore see what each scene is and what each scene required, which takes quite a bit of time when you’re just faced with, ‘What line do I say next?’ cause there’s a lot of words in it. So I think it was a great gift that we had that two-year layoff.”

Eyre agrees, noting that since the exigencies of stagecraft had been met, his cast was free to focus on the internal life of their characters. “It’s a huge play, it’s a huge task, it’s a huge learn for the actors,” says the director. “Two years of observation and detachment I think does a lot. For Lesley and Jeremy, really all they had to do the second time around was think of how to interpret it.”

A Tony, Golden Globe, Oscar and Olivier Award winner, Irons worked with Eyre on the BBC’s 2012 series, The Hollow Crown, playing Henry IV. Eyre is a five-time Olivier winner, his most recent for the 2014 revival of Ibsen’s Ghosts, for which Manville was also awarded. Best known to U.S. audiences for her Oscar-nominated turn opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in last year’s Phantom Thread, Manville calls O’Neill’s autobiographical play “the greatest piece of writing I’ve ever performed.”

“Still, having done over a hundred performances now, the language of it gets me every night,” she adds. “It’s the emotional challenge of playing it. I have to be in the right frame of mind to be able to go to these fairly dark places every night and to emotionally deliver the performances. That’s a challenge but that’s my job.”

Written in 1941 but not produced until 1956, Long Day’s Journey won O’Neill his fourth Pulitzer Prize three years after his death. It examines a family beset with drug and alcohol addiction led by James Tyrone (Irons), a once-promising actor who squandered his talent repeatedly playing the same melodramatic role. O’Neill’s own father was an Irish immigrant and alcoholic who made his living as an itinerant actor.

Tyrone’s oldest son is Jamie (Rory Keenan), an acting aspirant and, like O’Neill’s real-life brother of the same name, also alcoholic. The youngest, Edmund (Matthew Beard), a poet with tuberculosis and a sweet disposition, is based on O’Neill who, like Edmund, was indirectly responsible for his mother’s addiction stemming from complications during childbirth.

Undertaking such a daunting play requires great trust, so it helped that Eyre and Manville were friends for years and had worked on Ghosts together. “We get on, we like each other, we laugh a lot and those things go a long way,” Manville explains. “He understands the human condition. He understands hearts and souls and minds. I always sense a great deal of freedom in his rehearsals that I can do whatever I want or try whatever I want.”

Before turning to directing, Eyre was an actor until one day he found he no longer had the confidence to stand before an audience. “I think that’s the very least a director should do is give the actors confidence. That confidence is an absolutely essential ingredient of what makes it possible for them to go on stage. If they don’t believe in themselves, it’s just impossible,” he says.

Film fans might be familiar with Sidney Lumet’s consummate 1962 production of the play starring Ralph Richardson, Katharine Hepburn, Dean Stockwell and Jason Robards reprising the role he originated on Broadway. Laconically paced, it stands in stark contrast to the new production, which moves like the mood swings of a morphine addict.

“You can be very up, you can be very down, you can be very horrible, you can say bad things, it makes you confident, it makes you insecure, it takes you all over the place,” says Manville, who consulted therapists and medical professionals in researching her role.

Eyre has studied other productions, which can run as long as four hours, and found them plodding, which is why his comes in at a trim three hours and 25 minutes. “To me, it has to be played with a kind of febrile energy,” he says. “This is about addiction and addiction has two phases, one is soporific and the other is hyperactive. You have to represent the two and I think we do.”

Consequently, portions of the play are delivered at breakneck speed, prompting grumbling in some reviews. “They have to listen and they have to work a little bit at the start, but maybe for some critics this was too much,” quips Irons.

“We’ve done all right and I stand by our production and I’m hugely proud of it,” Manville says, citing positive notices in the U.K. in addition to her Olivier nomination, then adding with a sigh, “I think we’re probably both ready to hang up our Tyrone hats now. I think it will be bittersweet.”