Suchet's Tyrone is the husk of a great actor, a skinflint who has sold his soul for one big commercial success; his attempts at preserving his self-esteem involve alcoholic delusion and the suffering of his wife, Mary Cavan Tyrone, a morphine addict since giving a difficult birth, and the uneasy bantering of his two grown sons, the failed actor James Tyrone Jr and the consumptive poet and sea-voyager, Edmund.
All four characters are close family portraits, Edmund of O'Neill himself. But it's the poisonous Irish Catholic atmosphere of guilt and retribution, whispered deceits and sudden accusatory lurches (with instant withdrawals and apologies) that Anthony Page's fleet and merciless production exposes so well.
It all takes place on one long day in August 1912 from sunlit morning till deep foggy night in the family summer house (designed by Lez Brotherston, beautifully lit by Mark Henderson) and speeds through in under three hours, the interval taken before the fourth fateful act.
You really do feel that these booze-fuelled arguments happen every day. It's as though the Tyrone family are trapped in their roles and that their domestic mythology is something they need as a communal fix, just as son number one needs to go whoring in town with “fat Violet” and son number two wallows in his “debauched” poets and the experience of pantheistic fulfilment on the sea.
These great speeches of the last act are superbly done by Trevor White as the fleshy James Jr and the bendy-limbed, stick thin Kyle Soller as Edmund. All four actors skirt round some astute editing and maintain the same sort of blistering pace that Jonathan Miller achieved in his revival starring Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey at the Haymarket a quarter of a century ago.
Suchet harks back even further to Laurence Olivier's National Theatre performance but resists Olivier's barking swagger, playing a much more broken, accommodating figure with odd flashes of the commanding Shakespearean; his theatrical heyday is a fading memory, not so much a defiant recreation, as it was with Olivier.
If the play belongs to anyone, it belongs to Mary, the convent girl who is drifting away from her family on jabs and sweet powders until her recurring lapses in the secrecy of her bedroom become a full blown “mad” scene. She appears, trailing her wedding dress, with an almost matter-of-fact inevitability, having paced around the upstairs bedroom like Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman.
The Chicago Steppenwolf veteran and Roseanne co-star Laurie Metcalf is brilliant throughout despite the handicap of a terrible Wurzel Gummidge white wig at the end (why do they do this?). She plays the text with a sort of neurasthenic rubato, forever darting ahead of herself into desperate gestures of appeasement while hovering over the abyss.
It is an immensely sad and touching performance which keeps this most personal and tragic of great American plays, as it is throughout, on just the right side of a debilitating pathos. A triumphant evening.