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Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Strange Interlude’ has a daunting reputation. Written in 1923, this weighty American opus runs to five hours in uncut form, meaning it’s almost never staged. It also includes a lot of unfashionable fourth wall breaking, as its protagonists insist on sharing their agonised inner thoughts with the audience.
Anybody who can honestly say that that sounds fun is either a liar or a masochist. But even after a fistful of recent O’Neill productions we still don’t know this extraordinary American playwright as well as we might. I can report that as well as being epic, heartbreaking and oh-so-wordy, Simon Godwin’s Anne-Marie Duff-starring revival is also unexpectedly enjoyable.
In part that’s down to some judicious pruning, with the evening topping out at a svelte three hours and 15 minutes. But actually, it’s there in the play itself, which has a deliciously waspish sense of humour – if O’Neill had lived long enough to write for ‘Dynasty’, this is what he might have come up with.
‘Strange Interlude’, then, concerns a woman, Nina (Duff), who lost her true love in the Great War, and spends a lifetime trying to decide what to do next. Three men are in love with her: Sam (Jason Watkins), her kind, bumbling husband; Edmund (Darren Petrie), the dashing doctor with whom she has a child; and Charles (Charles Edwards) a prissy family friend. It’s not necessarily the most eloquent of plots, but O’Neill’s elevated language is utterly electric, burnishing this quartet’s machinations into something of rare beauty.
It wouldn’t work if Duff wasn’t extraordinary, which she is: aged 42, the actress captures the troubled college-age Nina with just a slump of the posture and a burning hollowness of the eye; she is equally convincing playing her as a frail old harpy; in between she is this epic’s passionate, potent centre as she wrestles with the unresolved question of whether to live a happy life or a noble one.
It is a heavyweight turn that enables the production to get away with a judicious amount of frivolity elsewhere. Edwards, in particular, is often hysterically funny, his soliloquies delivered as bitchy, gossipy asides – with increasingly droll timing – that knowingly puncture ‘Strange Interlude’s more overwrought moments.
After an intense first two hours, set in dark, claustrophobic living rooms, Soutra Gilmour’s set unexpectedly erupts into life with a mind-boggling coup de théâtre that sees a pivotal late scene take place on a luxury yacht, of all places. As it does, Godwin’s production – already blackly comic – loosens up to match. The ending is poignant, but not bleak, and there’s a sort of generosity and even bravery in its refusal to succumb to despair. It’s a peculiar play and an uneven evening, but this is one long, strange trip worth taking.
By Andrzej Lukowski