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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
STRANGE INTERLUDE
at the National (Lyttelton)

WORK OF A PIONEER
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Anne-Marie Duff, Theo Fewell and Jason Watkins/ Ph: Johan Persson

When Eugene O’Neill wrote his Pulitzer prize-winning play Strange Interlude in 1928, he was a giant among pygmies – the most innovative and pioneering American playwright Broadway had ever seen. Each of his plays, from 1920 onwards, broke barriers and pushed the bounds of style and content further than any of his contemporaries. Every play was different in form, going where no other American dramatist had dared to go before. Just as without Ibsen and Strindberg there probably wouldn’t have been an O’Neill, were it not for the pioneering work of O’Neill, we probably wouldn’t have had Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.

Strange Interlude was his longest play to date. It originally ran five hours, due largely to the fact that all of its characters, in the manner of a Shakespearean aside, speak their thoughts directly to the audience. What they actually say to one another is not necessarily what they’re thinking, or what they really mean – and we get to hear both points of view.

This imparts to the play the kind of depth of characterisation you’d expect from a novel. And admittedly, while the device is often in danger of becoming unwieldy, its cumulative power – especially in a production as fine as Simon Godwin has delivered to the National Theatre – is thrilling.

O’Neill's story has more than a touch of soap opera to it. It begins in New England just after the Great War, where the alluring Nina Leeds (Anne-Marie Duff), the daughter of a morally impeccable university professor (Patrick Drury) is inconsolable after the death of her air-pilot fiancé and distraught that their relationship was never consummated. Concerned for her well-being, her father as well as a droll, mother-fixated friend called Charles (Charles Edwards), who is secretly in love with Nina himself, engage the services of Dr. Edmund Darrell (Darren Pettie) to help her out of her depression.

And what he decides is that she should marry Sam Evans (Jason Watkins), a decent but unprepossessing young man who also happens to be madly in love with her. The idea is that she should have a baby with him and begin a new life as a wife and mother.

Nina agrees, marries and falls pregnant, only to be told by Sam’s strait-laced mother (Geraldine Alexander) that there’s insanity in her husband’s side of the family. So she has an abortion. Sam, meantime, is unaware both of his wife’s pregnancy, the abortion and the insanity issue. What Nina then decides to do next is have a clandestine affair with Dr. Durrell, have his child and pass it off as Sam’s. But complications, as they say, inevitably ensue.

It takes a playwright as great as O’Neill, with his infallible insight into the human condition and his daring dramatic instincts to make this mish-mash of a plot work convincingly. The power of his dialogue and the sharpness of his characterisations brilliantly circumnavigate the clumsiness of the play’s structure so that you really want to know what happens next.

And when you consider that O’Neill’s themes embraced insanity, adultery, abortion and featured a ruthless heroine who was promiscuous, unscrupulous, who seesawed between doing what was right and what was wrong, the play must surely have impacted on audiences in 1928 with the force of a punch in the gut. Broadway had never seen anything quite like it, and Strange Interlude ran for a year and a half.

Today, of course, the play’s shock value is no longer a factor and for it to work for a sophisticated, contemporary audience, it needs precisely the superb production the National provides. The performances are outstanding, with Duff impeccable as the man-trap Nina. At times the thoughts O’Neill puts into her mouth are redundant because so skilled an actress is she that you know instinctively what is going on in her head just by looking at her face. It’s a breathtaking tour de force of a fiendishly difficult role, spanning about 20 years, and is not to be missed.

What humour there is in the play is generously explored by Edwards as mommy’s-boy Charles,who  manages to find laughs in the character’s ingrained frustrations and loneliness without compromising the anguish he perennially experiences in his longing for Nina.

Watkins is physically perfect as the unknowing Sam, and his transformation from resident dork to a successful businessman once Nina gives birth to what he genuinely believes is his son, is strangely moving.

The most personable of Nina’s trio of suitors and the most conflicted of the trio is Dr. Darrell, sturdily played by Pettie. Deprived of both the woman he loves and the son he cannot acknowledge, he is the play’s moral anchor and Pettie gives the role more emotional depth than is evident in the dialogue.

Godwin, who has trimmed the text to a manageable three hours and 15 minutes, gives this sprawling epic a cohesion that ensures that not for a single second does it drag; and the absolutely stunning revolving set – worth the price of admission alone – is by Soutra Gilmour.

This is the National Theatre on the top of its game.

 


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