Edmund, Eugene O’Neill’s cipher in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, tells his bitter, layabout brother, "You've just told me some high spots in your memories. Want to hear mine? They're all connected with the sea."
With that late masterpiece poised to return to London, The Old Vic has chosen the perfect moment to revisit O’Neill’s very earliest works, where the sea is no friend to man, but rather the cruel backdrop for dashed hopes and wasted lives.
The Old Vic Tunnels are an ideal location for the short pieces, the first three of O’Neill’s Glencairne plays, which make up this evening of nautical nihilism. Each play visits the same crew of characters, though each drama is self-contained, and their presentation together allows for a sense of continuity to develop, as well as one of hopelessness.
Bound East for Cardiff is simple but moving tale of one man facing the death of a long-time shipmate, In the Zone a taut psychological thriller in which cabin fever and wartime paranoia drive the crew to increasingly desperate acts and The Long Voyage Home a blackly comic vignette of the perils of shore leave. Filled with sailors’ boasts and tall tales, they have an anecdotal quality themselves, they may allude to wider themes of mortality and faith, but their true subject is the sea, and the lives of those who have given themselves to it.
It is difficult to imagine how fresh these plays seemed to an American audience when the Provincetown Players first launched them in 1816, bringing naturalism from its European cradle in the works of Ibsen or the showcases of the Théâtre Libre to a city whose theatres had yet to acknowledge the existence of the working man.
What is easier to see is O’Neill’s emergent genius; like the best of his work these plays are effortlessly multivocal, that blend of voices and characters from across the world woven together into a raucous ensemble is already in evidence. Though the plots of these plays now seem tired, there is still an energy in O’Neill’s dialogue, as fresh as ocean spray and as irresistible as the tide.
The cast is generally strong, with particularly compelling turns from Matthew Travannion as good-hearted Irishman Driscoll and Eddie Webber as Joe, a contemptible London lush roller. Director Kenneth Hoyt keeps things clear and makes dynamic use of Van Santvoord’s impressive design, with apparently weighty hull sections swirling across the stage like a tempest-tossed liner. To reach the stage we move past sweating boiler-men, who might have walked straight from the set of The Hairy Ape, toiling away in the bowls of a great steamer, and the Tunnels generally provide a perfect setting, if the odd shape of the Screening Room creates occasional problems with obstructed views.
O’Neill sceptics (or even agnostics) may find less to love, for everyone else, to see these plays at all is a thrilling opportunity, to see them tackled with such care makes The Sea Plays next to unmissable.