Review: Strange Interlude, National Theatre

“What am I doing here?”

When a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude was first announced as part of the National Theatre’s summer programme, the five hour running time of the original struck a note of fear in many a heart of those who are used to the cheap seats in the Lyttelton Theatre. And though it has been trimmed down to 3 hours 20 minutes in Simon Godwin’s production, it still proves something of a considerable challenge – not least because I could not see for the life of me why it has been revived.

Due to its length and winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1928, it is no surprise that it ticks the ‘rarely performed classics’ box and featuring an absolute doozy of a central female role in Nina Leeds, it is no typical piece of theatre. Sadly, its main innovation – characters speaking their many, many internal thoughts out loud as asides – is one which felt far too similar to last week’s Passion Play to really impress. And it also makes what ought to be more seriously considered drama into an unexpected campfest that feels more like an American soap opera like Dynasty or Sunset Beach but with none of the schlocky enjoyment.

Nina – the excellent Anne-Marie Duff – is a WASPy princess of a girl who reacts to the death of her fiancé in WWI and the stuffiness of her father by sleeping around a lot until the most important men in her life force her into making a decision. But though she settles for Jason Watkins’ solid businessman Sam Evans as her husband, she keeps the doctor who became her lover – Darren Pettie’s most handsome Darrell – and the family friend who has always admired her from afar – Charles Edwards’ daffy Charles (who would probably be more at home in a Tennessee Williams play…) – close at hand. Thus the long stretch of her life is characterised by the way in which she keeps these three men in thrall, orbiting her like moons around planet.

Trouble is, there’s no discernible gravitational pull. Not even Duff’s considerable skills can really justify why Nina has such an irresistible effect, aside from a flintily indomitable spirit, and O’Neill doesn’t really give us much of a clue either. And though the men perform well – Edwards’ dry humour is particularly well served – the enduring benevolence that characterises these relationships rarely convinces, the play never really tugs at the heartstrings, and in its final scene, it severely tests the patience.

And Godwin’s production did little to endear me to the play either. Soutra Gilmour’s set starts off as an intriguing revolving doll’s house but soon turns into the kind of lavish extravagance that just seems wasteful with the modernist stairwell feeling the most pointless. The rhythms of the asides played strongly to their comic potential, reducing both their emotional impact and the poetic eloquence that occasionally reared its head. But whilst neither play nor production did anything for me, it has received considerable critical acclaim, which just goes to show you never know. A significant chunk of the row behind us left at the interval – the lengthy first half is somewhat punishing if you’re not feeling the love – and though some of the acting is good, I couldn’t help but wish I had joined them.

Running time: 3 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Johan Persson

Booking until 12th August

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