‘Great plays are great plays. And this one is acknowledged as such,” says Paul Shelley, a familiar face on TV whose credits include everything from Doctor Who to Crossroads, but who is probably best known as Chief Constable Richard Lovell, Inspector Barnaby’s boss, in Midsomer Murders.
Shelley is musing on his latest project, the Royal Shakespeare Company actor plays James Tyrone in the Royal Lyceum’s first production of 2014, Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
After a moment’s thought, he elaborates, “It is a play that is bound to be relevant to anyone with a family or family involvement.
“Although it is largely autobiographical, though not slavishly so, all the characters and their facets are universal and recognisable.”
Now considered one of the 20th century’s greatest playwrights, O’Neill’s masterpiece, set in the seaside Connecticut home of the Tyrone family in 1912, covers a single fateful and heart-rending day.
James Tyrone, an ageing actor, has built a reputation for playing just one role, a role he has toured for years. Wealthy, he is unhappy, resentful that one part has stereotyped him and stopped him playing his dream Shakespearean roles.
His wife Mary, meanwhile, recently returned from treatment for morphine addiction, is restless. When Edmund, her younger son, hears her moving around in the spare bedroom late at night he becomes concerned - that was the room she used to satisfy her morphine addiction.
In addition, the family fears Edmund’s constant coughing is tuberculosis.
Elsewhere, the families other son Jamie, has followed in his father’s footsteps.
Opening in the early morning, the action of the four-act play continues over the course of a day, until midnight.
It is an intense depiction of a family grappling with addiction, truth, love and the ability to face themselves and each other - all three males are alcoholics, while Mary is still addicted to morphine.
“Apart from Shakespeare, no one delves into the souls of his characters more than Eugene O’Neill; always individual and intensely private,” says director Tony Cownie
“Tortured yes, but always striving in the dark for a precious flash of life affirming inspiration.
“In this, arguably his finest achievement, O’Neill gives us a haunting and shatteringly honest insight into what it is to be human.”
Shelley admits James is a challenge, and one he is relishing.
“It is a massive part in a massive play - all the parts of the family are massive and very demanding.
“We need to find loads of blame, tons of hate and oceans of love. How could an actor say no to such a part and to such a play?”
Playing opposite the 71-year-old as his wife Mary is Diana Kent, whose recent small screen appearances have included New Tricks and World Without End.
It was the demanding nature of the role of Mary that attracted her too, she agrees. “I like plays and parts where no one character is portrayed as the villain. Because this role was created from his actual mother, there is deep compassion and understanding for her. ”
A study of addiction, both actors believe it is as relevant today as it was when O’Neill wrote it in 1941 – although it wasn’t actually staged until 1956.
“There is drug addiction at the heart of the problems in this family. Not recreational drugs but something more upsetting, deeper and more relevant. There is also alcohol addiction, though not really acknowledged as that. They are definitely issues that are still around,” says Shelley.
Kent agrees, adding, “Families remain precarious and flawed in today’s society.”
It still speaks to audiences more than 70 years after it was written because of that, she believes.
“Absolutely trust the family dynamic,” the actress insists, “because you know it is based on a real story. That love and rivalry needs met and, equally, needs not met, remains constant throughout the generations.”
O’Neill, who died in 1953, was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the work in 1957 - well deserved recognition in Kent’s opinion.
“Examination of a family is universal, in that those conflicts of love and hate exist in all families. The language in this play is particularly vivid and compelling.”
Despite the challenges of the play, however, Shelley adds that, as an actor, it is also a very liberating piece.
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night takes place in one large living room, so there are no great technical demands or wizardry. The responsibility for the play in performance falls squarely on the actors’ shoulders. That is challenging and liberating.”
Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Royal Lyceum, Grindlay Street, Friday-8 February, 7.45pm (matinees 2.30pm), £12-£27.50, 0131-248 4848