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
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And there was me thinking this was wonderful in a retro kind of way - funny, brilliantly acted, sometimes insightful. I can think of many plays where I've nodded off but not this one. Glad I didn't read the reviews above before I went to see it.
I am genuinely surprised to see the broadly positive reviews that this production has received. The actors do as good a job as they can with the material, but I found the play itself to be really rather dreadful. I am not familiar with Eugene O'Neill's work, which is clearly highly regarded given the awards that he and this play received, but I struggle to understand the appeal. The dialogue is at once unimaginatively direct and ridiculously histrionic, with some terribly leaden bits of exposition, in which the characters explain the plot to one another despite the fact that all concerned would clearly already know all the details under discussion. The direction veers decidedly towards the over-the-top, such that, particularly in the second half, there are moments when it feels like you are watching a deliberate parody or even a period stage adaptation of Eastenders. As for the frequent asides that pepper the dialogue, while these are a potentially interesting device, I often found myself baffled as to what on Earth the author thought they contributed. What purpose is served by having a character announce "I must tell him" before doing exactly that? Surely the regular dialogue conveys all the necessary information and in a far more elegant way? None of the characters does anything to particularly make us warm to them or care about them, so their increasingly repetitious self-obsessions rapidly become tedious. The decisions that they are required to make also strain credibility to breaking point, such as when a central character is persuaded, in lightning quick time, to take a drastic and life changing action on the basis of unsubstantiated waffle about the family's medical history. The sexual politics of the piece are also horrendous, with the initially strong-willed leading female character repeatedly shown to have no value but through her relationships with the series of tepid men who each wait their turn to command her affections, from her dead sweetheart to her unpleasant son. Given that the play was written in the 1920s, I could easily forgive such problematic attitudes as artefacts of the period if the play had anything else to recommend it, but sadly I think I have made it clear that I couldn't find any such redeeming features. The final indignity is the fact that the whole thing just goes on and on forever. Three and a quarter hours is a ridiculous length for this piece; the plot would actually have felt more satisfying if it had finished at the end of the first half. To be fair, the actors manage to squeeze some comedy out of the dialogue (although in places this slightly undermines the bleak nature of the material) and the sets are highly impressive. Overall, unfortunately, my advice would definitely be to find a better way to spend the evening.
Wonderful production with great cast somewhat undermined by the fact this is an absolutely appalling play. Edwardian melodrama has had its day and Eugene O'Neill just doesn't cut it. Although Strange Interlude once won a Purlitzer, there's no real story here and neither the script, nor characters, are interesting enough for over 3 hours. If anyone dared to, it would be fun to cut it to around an hour and a half and play it as farce - the constant asides to the audience could give it license. David above has hit the nail on the head - with the exception of Long Days Journey into Night (and David Suchet was mesmerising in the recent production) could everyone please stop reviving O'Neill?
I agree that the play is a little dated, but the performances were fantastic (particularly Duff, Watkins and Edwards). Fabulous set design. I wasn't disappointed.
As an avid fan of everything the NT produces due to its outstanding quality, I couldn't refuse an invitation to this NT produced play. Not knowing much about it I went in with fresh eyes. 15 minutes into the play and it felt like I was in the wrong theatre. There was a vague reminiscence to other NT plays but there was something lacking...for me, the problem was mainly in the staging, the lighting and the design of the set. It never felt like it came alive even if the actors did a good job. The writing also lacked wit and as a whole, I don't think the directing did the best they could with the subject matter of the play. We were fighting falling asleep and at the interval we decided not to go back.
As an American, it continues to astonish me that British critics tend to give such high marks to O'Neill, whereas my (American) theater-loving friends and I tend to see him as a terrible old hack (with the notable exception of "Long Day's Journey"). "Strange Interlude" has to be one of the worst plays written in the 20th century, and while this production is impeccably staged, it can't conceal the fact that the material is ludicrous and extremely dated.
Disappointing. Anne Marie Duff is wonderful but the play suffers from an inconsistent tone, which is at times extremely dark and others almost farcical. It's also far too long, the second half drags considerably. This being the NT, it is undoubtedly a quality production but the story and direction let it down.