The 6.30pm start for the first night preview of the latest offering at The Lyttleton was the clue, but it wasn’t until I did some research on Strange Interlude written by Eugene O’Neill in 1928 that I realised the play has been known to last five hours …. gulp! Luckily, the Director, Simon Godwin (his first production at The National) has trimmed his version to last three-and-a-quarter hours and at no time did I wish it were shorter. My enjoyment of this marathon piece was not only down to his expert direction, but to the excellence of Anne-Marie Duff as Nina Leeds, Charles Edwards as Charles Marsden and the wonderful set by Designer Soutra Gilmour (it even got a round of applause).
Strange Interlude is O’Neill’s attempt to write a stage play as a novel, showing as he does, each character saying what is felt and what is heard, with the aid of prolonged asides. Particularly in the hands of the wonderful Charles Edwards, this treatment works extremely well, as, thanks to his immaculate timing, many of his private thoughts are richly comic. If only one always knew what the other person were thinking; or maybe not!
The story centres upon Nina Leeds, the daughter of a professor who is racked with grief at the death of her fiancé. Not only has he been shot down and killed just two days before the armistice of World War One, but she refused to have sex with him before he went off to war and now feels guilty and wretched. So much so that she tries to cure herself by nursing wounded soldiers in such a way that it gives quite another meaning to good bedside manner! Quite a subject for the nineteen twenties and it gets even more risqué. Her father and older admirer, Charles Marsden, a mummy’s boy if ever there was one, are concerned for her mental health and consult a doctor, Edmund Darrell, who strangely suggests she marry an ineffectual young man and have a child. Easy, one might say, except that the mother of this poor unsuspecting and gullible young man warns Nina that inherited insanity runs in the family and she must not, under any circumstances, have a child by him. Whoops, too late, she is already pregnant, so an abortion is performed and she goes on to have an affair with the doctor. The resulting son from this liaison is passed off as her husband’s who, even though his stature and wealth grows throughout the play, still doesn’t smell a rat.
Even though the plot takes a little swallowing and the writing sometimes tends towards the melodramatic, it is easy to suspend one’s disbelief. The emotional depth of O’Neill’s writing, truthful portrayal by the actors and gripping direction by Simon Godwin had me totally gripped and I couldn’t wait to see how everything would be resolved.
The main characters grow within the play and can never be termed one dimensional. Anne-Marie Duff is superb as the fragile Nina, portraying her early neurosis and later fixation with her Doctor lover and then her child, with relative ease. As mentioned above, Charles Edward’s Marsden, cannot be faulted and he is eminently believable as Nina’s surrogate father figure, affecting an old man’s gait to perfection towards the end of the play. Darren Pettie, the one true American in the cast, has a perfect sexual swagger and he and Anne-Marie Duff have a wonderful on stage chemistry. Jason Watkins, who plays Nina’s cuckolded husband, manages to be completely believable as the nerdish younger man who eventually becomes a successful and very wealthy businessman.
Soutra Gilmour’s wonderful set gets the round of applause when the bow of a yacht appears on stage and, understandably so, as it’s totally unexpected and totally realistic.
Yes, the play is a marathon, but well worth the effort.