The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyttelton Theatre Summer 2013
Eugene O'Neill won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936, which was doubly ironic, first because most of his plays up to then are now held in very low critical regard and rarely if ever revived, while such masterpieces as The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night all came later.
And second because he spent the 1920s jumping from one experimental mode to another trying to squeeze all he had to say into his plays, only to finally find his natural voice in simple realism.
Strange Interlude (1928) is one of his more successful stylistic dead ends, a play in which he had to stretch the dramatic form and audience stamina almost to their limits – nine acts, heavily cut to just over three hours in this revival – and invent a new mode of internal monologue to let us hear his characters' thoughts as well as words.
The result is daunting, overpowering, exhausting and ultimately absorbing drama – not a theatrical experience you'd want to have every night of the week, but one that repays your dedication in sticking with it.
The story is, at its core, an extended soap opera. Nina Leeds, mourning the lover lost in the Great War, marries Sam, the nice but ineffectual guy who adores her, in the hope that marriage and motherhood will bring her peace. But, for reasons that make sense at the time, she can't have Sam's child, and so she asks friend Ned for a purely unemotional impregnation.
Nina and Ned fall in love, Sam gets a son who changes his life, Ned runs away, and – well, the point is that over a period of more than twenty years nothing turns out as planned but nothing turns out all that badly either.
You can interpret the play as a feminist tract with Nina trying and failing to control her life through controlling the men around her, as a mythic study in the conflict between male and female forces, as a psychological analysis of various neurotic patterns, as a criticism of the American success ethos, as a sadly ironic view of the enormous passions we expend in the brief interlude that is our lives.
O'Neill probably intended all of those, but he also knew that the core of the play had to be our involvement with real human beings just trying to stumble their way through life. Director Simon Godwin and his cast wisely keep their eye on that ball, and it is the recognisable and always sympathetic human experiences that hold us.
Anne-Marie Duff's Nina is never a monster, never a madwoman and above all never just a symbol. She is an honourable woman always wanting to do right by others while capturing just a little happiness for herself, and her survival in the face of the ironies of life that repeatedly promise and then withdraw the peace she seeks gives her a heroic quality. Darren Pettie's Ned is just a nice guy in beyond his depth and trying to find a balance between saving himself and hurting others.
I do have some minor cavils. Jason Watkins has been directed to make Sam too much of a comic loser at the start, when we should see the qualities that make the others wish him well even as they betray him. Charles Edwards is a little too young and masculine looking for the sexless family friend and choric observer Charlie.
The heavy editing makes some emotional shifts seem too abrupt and extreme. And director Godwin's solution for dealing with the constant spoken-thoughts asides is to make them conversational and natural, as if the audience were another character onstage. It's attractive and perhaps less obtrusive than a more artificial mode might be, but sometimes blurs the essential distinction between open speech and private thought.
Three and a quarter hours of occasionally melodramatic passions is a heavy slog. But it delivers an intimate immersion in the lives of the play's characters that is worth the effort.