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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttelton)


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

Ever wondered what a Noel Coward tragedy would sound like? Well, here’s a chance to find out.
No question about it, Strange Interlude is a fascinating experience. But Eugene O’Neill’s 1928 domestic epic is also filled with incongruities, implausibilities and plenty of laughs. As long ago as 1930, Groucho Marx spotted the script’s inherently ludicrous possibilities when he inserted a parody scene into the Marx Brothers’ film Animal Crackers. He cleverly sent up the pretensions that pushed O’Neill’s ambitious experimentation beyond its breaking point into something that is alternately stilted and silly.
Many claim that it is a great play, and O’Neill did win his third Pulitzer Prize for this; but I don’t think it’s a play at all. It’s more like a spoken novel that allows its characters the chance to verbalize their inner thoughts directly to the audience. These thoughts are often 180-degree contradictions of what is being said to the other characters on stage. As a result, they are often transgressively funny – they serve up shared secrets that let us revel in some catty thoughts that would never, ever be said out loud.
Yet, there is actually nothing in Strange Interlude that lends itself to chuckles. As the play opens, the First World War has just ended. Nina Leeds, O’Neill’s heroine, has lost her golden boy fiancé to the trenches without having slept with him on the night before he shipped overseas. She can blame her father for her reticence.
In the midst of what could be a nervous breakdown, Nina takes up nursing, and even takes up wounded soldiers as a kind of sexual compensation. Can she blame her father for this as well? Hello, Dr Freud.
Eventually, Nina chooses to marry the wrong man, rather than the man she loves or the man who loves her. What goes on from here is horrific – hereditary insanity, abortion, parentage by proxy – 25 sprawling years’ worth of deceit and recrimination. It’s an up-market blueprint for Dallas.
The quality of the National Theatre’s new production is unquestionably stellar. Anne-Marie Duff is a febrile flame. Her suitors (including her father and her son) flutter and flounder in the heated trap of her attractions.
Charles Edwards plays Charles Marsden, the eternal looker-on. He’s a Henry James outsider who observes with acute accuracy but can’t begin to figure out how to participate. It is one of the most dated aspects of O’Neill’s script that he simply cannot come out of the closet – or, for that matter, even realize that he is in the closet.
Darren Pettie plays Edmund Darrell, the true father of Nina’s child. He’s got up as a Eugene O’Neill clone (and his creepy Eugenics clinic is very much downplayed in this adaptation). Jason Watkins is Sam Evans, Nina’s eventual husband. Pudgy and bumptious, he is the only “nice” (i.e. stupid) character on offer.
One of the true triumphs here is Soutra Gilmour. Her designs are not only lush and incredibly evocative, they are also pinpoint accurate. As with her other West End hit of the moment, Merrily We Roll Along, Gilmour has a knack for selecting the exact detail that encapsulates an era to perfection.
Simon Godwin’s direction is taut; the judicious pruning of the script by over an hour’s worth of material is to be praised. But nothing or no one could deal with the unbearably clunky melodrama of the tedious Jane Eyre scene where Sam’s mother reveals to the pregnant Nina the horrible secret in the attic – inherited madness. Of course, the play couldn’t exist without this revelation, but … all sympathies to Geraldine Alexander for trying to bring some truth to this dowdy frump.
Did audiences laugh in 1928? Did O’Neill intend them to? Me, I’ll stick with Groucho.


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