MATTHEW BEARD RETURNS TO THE STAGE IN 'LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT'
Three years ago, the English actor Matthew Beard made his New York stage début opposite Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy in Skylight, earning himself a Tony nomination for a performance that lasted roughly nineteen minutes each night. This month, he returns with a significantly more demanding role, playing the sensitive tubercular younger son Edmund in Eugene O’Neill’s rigorous three-and-a-half-hour semi-autobiographical play Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Often regarded as one of the most important American plays of the twentieth century, Long Day’s Journey traces the course of a single summer day with the Tyrones, with the parsimonious actor father James (here played by Jeremy Irons) and the haunted, morphine-addicted mother Mary (Lesley Manville) spearing each other and their two grown sons with constant criticism. O’Neill wrote the play largely based on the circumstances of his own life, with Edmund serving as his stand-in, and Beard is not afraid to admit that the role carries its own inherent complications. “Edmund has always been the one who has been slated,” he explains. “If there’s ever a negative criticism of the play, it’s always aimed at that part because Eugene O’Neill wrote all of his family members with this brutal honesty and gave them all these flaws which they all talk about and then when it comes to himself, he’s just like, ‘Oh, I’m a poet.’”
The current revival, directed by Richard Eyre and also starring Rory Keenan as the elder brother Jamie, is fleet-footed and snappy, in contrast to the play’s often elegiac tone. Beard’s Edmund, in particular, is especially vivid, even as his hacking cough presages weakness to come. “It’s not so much that he’s a whiny adolescent, it’s that he’s gone back home and he’s trapped and he’s regressed into that world again,” explains Beard, noting that the irresolute Edmund is recently returned from a year at sea due to illness and penury and has no prospects ahead of him. “I spent a very depressing Christmas cramming the lines at home, which was interesting. It was weird being back in my family home learning that play over Christmas, but also it was really good to learn it then because I think most people, when you go back to your family home, you kind of regress into being that person you were when you left it, which is how I thought to approach Edmund.”
Long Day’s Journey, which first ran in London earlier this year and will be traveling on to Los Angeles next month, marks Beard’s first time on stage since Skylight, and he admits that he was not immediately drawn to the role. “Weirdly I’d actually just got another Eugene O’Neill play through the week before and I’d never read one before,” he recalls. “I started reading that and I just didn’t really get it. I couldn’t tune in to it, the pattern of speech and the words and the period setting. It was quite dense so then when this came in I was like, Oh god, another Eugene O’Neill play.” He diligently prepared for the audition nonetheless and says he was gradually convinced by its power as he spent more time reading it over. “It was only when I started to do the piece out loud that I started to see the real qualities in the writing and his ear for it, the poetry that’s hidden in there,” he says. “It’s so good.”
O’Neill’s work was revolutionary at the time for its naturalistic style, coming in an age when vaudeville was the standard. His own father, upon whom James Tyrone is based, was an actor who toured with an abridged crowd-pleasing production of The Count of Monte Cristo for over six thousand performances and was widely seen to have sold his artistic integrity for financial success. “Eugene O’Neill grew up watching his dad doing that and was like, What the fuck is this? Where’s the truth?” Beard says. “Then he sat down and wrote these plays which changed theater forever. A whole world of theater wouldn’t have existed if it wasn’t for Journey.”
Although no longer quite as groundbreaking today, Long Day’s Journey continues to resonate due to its merciless dissection of family relationships. All four members are deeply flawed and crushingly honest about their disappointments and doubts. “Whenever I speak to anyone after the show, they’ve always said like, ‘I can relate to that,’ or, ‘I know someone like that,’ or, ‘Jesus, my mom was like that growing up.’ They mean it in very different ways,” Beard relates. “I guess why it’s lasted so long is that every one of the characters has a proper journey and you either were that person or you know that person and that family dynamic is familiar to everyone. I think there’s an element of each of our characters that people can relate to.”
Long Day’s Journey into Night continues through May 27 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Images originally published in April 2015.
Styling by Adam Winder. Grooming by Kota Suiza at Caren using MAC Cosmetics. Photographer’s assistant: Alec McLeish. Stylist’s assistant: Chiori Takamatsu. Shot on location at Space in Between, London.