And so it continues… The Sydney Theatre Company’s crusade into International reputation with Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

Sitting between Blanchette’s Streetcar, and the Upcoming productions of Steppenwolf’s Production of Lett’s August: Osage County… and Thorton Wilder’s Our Town… AND Philip Seymour Hoffman’s production of Sam Shepard’s True West… we now have the great William Hurt opposite our great Robyn Nevin in Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize winning play.

It’s a very “International” season, isn’t it? Look at the new play from China! Look at the award winning theatre company from Israel… and Turkey! And see- the inclusion of the greatest Mexican playwright! International. No… it is! Don’t you get it? “International” is the new word for “American.” The cultural empire envelopes our language- we are unable to call things what they are. Our voices corrupted. Our great plays relegated to an occasional airing or the HSC compulsory reading lists- or relegated to independent theatres without money, without visibility.

It breaks my heart.


The Sydney Theatre company is in the best position to be one of our cultural leaders- it has a highly visible, highly intelligent woman at it’s helm and yet it is stuck in a pattern of programming that which won’t say what it really is- it is programming American plays and hiring American artists to boost it’s self esteem. Like the chubby girl at school always driving around her ungrateful “friends” because she just wants to be liked… our theatre is hosting and promoting American theatre and theatre artists as the best Australia has to offer.

How embarrassing. How provincial.

Thirty years ago The Stables was born out of a need to hear Australian plays, Australian voices on stage… a reaction against the tyranny of the British Empire’s cultural cloak. And here we are again. We theatre folk forget our own history- for a bunch of oral historians we really are utterly terrible at remembering and passing it on.

Why does it matter so much, Gus? What is it about Australian plays that really matters? Aren’t we a globalized village? Aren’t we seeking out the best the world has to offer?

You know, there is music in our language- and music in the languages that our indigenous people were denied in speaking- there is a poetry about our land, there is humour in our experience, there is beauty in our community. There is talent in our country- and eventually this talent gets the shits with being overlooked, underpaid, ignored and passed over for American talent and moves overseas. .. because maybe if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em? The message for actors is pretty clear- you can only be good if you are in American films, discovered in America, trained in America. The message it send to theatre artists of today is, we aren’t good enough.

Well that is crap. We are. We are developing- and will continue to develop, but every time a major MONEYED theatre company puts dollars in an overseas pocket- the reputation and self-esteem of Australian writing and actors suffers. For two artistic directors who seem so concerned with “Greening the Wharf” and environmental sustainability- they don’t seem too concerned with cultural or artistic sustainability.

You know what would make me feel better? If Hurt and company now travel to the US to The Artists Repertory Theatre and put on one of our plays- Summer Of the Seventeenth Doll… or The Torrents… or The Ham Funeral… What do you reckon Cate?

First published on www.australianstage.com.au

Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is regarded as one of the great masterpieces of American playwriting. Known as an intimate portrait of O’Neill’s family life, the play was handed to a publisher on a proviso that it not be published until 25 years after his death. It seemed his wish was not to be granted and subsequently was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1957- four years after his death.

James Tyrone (William Hurt), his wife Mary (Robyn Nevin), and sons Jamie ( Todd Van Voris) and Edmund (Luke Mullins) live in an old house which is not quite a home with their apathetic summer help Cathleen (Emily Russell). They are a family consisting of adults- two unmarried sons, who are without children, and often without money who exist in the past, and in the secrets which hide inbetween their conversations. There is much said and little given away- stories, reminiscences and contexts are slowly unwound in large, sweeping monologues. James Tyrone, obsessively fretting about finances, favouring the inexpensive over “the very best” – or even the half way decent- the threat of the poor house disintegrating every decision- overwhelming any gesture of love that money could buy. When faced with a delicate ailing youngest son, an unwell wife who is to be ever-watched, and a lazy womanizing drunk eldest son – he retreats into the tobacco trance and whisky haze of his past as a successful actor.

Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set: a large set of frames, treated with a dirty wall-paper finish loom and arc over the Tyrone family. A grubby window at the back of the stage, allow us to peer into a black outside world… There is no suggestion of the surrounding land- but birds sing occasionally, suggesting life beyond the familial.. the family dwarfed by their house- overwhelmed by its presence. Complimented by this are Tess Schofield’s costume designs- which hint at the era the play was written in but bridges the gap between the highly stylized set and the naturalism of the text. There is an appropriateness about the three piece suit Tyrone wears- but it is subverted by the painted pin-stripes… Jamie’s costume appears to be “of era” except for the shimmer in his trousers… at times suggesting, perhaps, that it is hard to know where theatre stops and reality begins?

It’s a sombre and difficult play- for those who have committed themselves, or had themselves committed to life in the theatre, there are moments that sting and questions that are asked… what is the cost of artistic compromise? We see the wrestle as Tyrone wrestles with his past and his self-respect when challenged by his younger sons… we see the momentary glimpses of affection- indicating a deep love- between Tyrone and Mary… we hear the regrets that have stunted the lives of them all. There is an intimacy in this disconnected family- that recognised the failures and failings in each other- that apologises for ghastly blame-shifting and manipulation- but the most powerful and remarkable thing about this play is the capacity for all relationships to find a point of understanding.

Nevin is sweetly lost and brutally vehment as Mary, restless and empty and broken. Hurt is spectacular to watch- it’s a war at times between Tyrone’s stage persona and his real-life persona as it fluctuates and flips. Mullins always consistently clear – adding great dignity and intensity to the ill-fated Edmund. But truly, this is a show which lights up as soon as Russell and Van Voris enter the stage- carrying with them big hearts and unrelenting honesty.

However, Andrew Upton’s direction of the actors seemed haphazard. A gratuitous move to have Edmund run through the audience’s stairs was alarming and baffling- and on another occasion Cathleen enters from “the kitchen” with a message from the cook and is sent off in the opposite direction to return with the response. At times, Hurts physical actions undercut the emotional story thus leaving Tyrone to be read as insincere or Hurt as a “bad theatre actor.” Upton has assembled a brilliant team around him, there’s no doubt about that- and to be in the presence of great plays, grand sets and the most skilled and celebrated in the International business is a pleasure for Sydney’s audiences.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a large and impressive production delivering performances by the most remarkable talent of our time, however, it the heart of the piece never quite reaches beyond the footlights.