Strange Interlude: National Theatre: starring Anne-Marie Duff

Kat Pope June 7, 2013

Strange Interlude

Strange Interlude, the National Theatre’s new production of Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer award winning play, is neither very strange – more solid – and certainly not an interlude, being nearly three and a half hours long (cut down from the original, bum-numbing five!)

Beginning in 1920s America and hinging on Nina (Anne-Marie Duff), a woman in mourning for her fiance Gordon whom she lost a few weeks before the end of the war, and the coterie of men surrounding her, Strange Interlude is a family saga with some lovely twists and turns. It explores the themes of happiness and how we kid ourselves that we’re doing something to make someone else happy when it’s usually really for our own ends.

Nina’s life is planned out for her by the men in it. Her father (Patrick Drury), who forbade her to marry Gordon before he went to fight, old family friend Charlie (Charles Edwards), and Ned (Darren Pettie), a doctor who’s charged with looking out for Nina’s mental health, conspire to marry her off to her dull but reliable workmate, Sam (Jason Watkins). Charlie loves her but doesn’t want anyone too ‘good’ to get his hands on her so gives the match his blessing, her father feels guilty for not letting her marry Gordon, and Ned simply thinks a baby would do her good. Nina goes along with it to rid herself of her urge to sleep with the wounded soldiers she nurses in a convalescent home (seeing Gordon in each one), and because she wants to become a mother.

She’s soon pregnant but it’s only then that Sam’s mother drops a bombshell: there’s a history of insanity in Sam’s family and she must get rid of the baby in case it has inherited it too.

In a series of  long but engaging scenes, stretching from Nina’s grief for Gordon’s fate right through to her old age, we see how the protagonists change over time, and the consequences of actions that are meant well, but often not thought out properly.

This production, directed by Simon Godwin, sometimes nods a bit too much towards the farcical, especially with Charlie who tends to burst into every scene with an absurd “What am I doing here?” or a self-deprecatory “Poor old Charlie!” Edwards plays him for laughs, but he’s also the nearest we have to a narrator here, amongst the usual O’Neill character asides.

The set is a game of two halves, the first being all homely Americana: studies and porches in muted greens and browns. After the interval, when Sam grows wealthy and successful, we go upmarket with a gorgeous Art Deco caged staircase in his Park Lane apartment and a gigantic yacht that glides onto the stage so convincingly it elicited a round of applause all of its own.

The acting is uniformly excellent, with Duff sailing through the saga with a deceptive ease. Watkins manages to convey Sam’s simple ‘gee-whizz’ nature with his Cowell-esque trousers almost up to his nipples, his lick ‘n’ spit hair and his eager-puppy stance, while Edward’s Charlie is funny, sentimental and spiteful in equal measures (“He’s an old cissy,” says Ned, the ‘manliest’ of the men).

Touching on issues of hereditary madness and abortion, Strange Interlude was a hot potato in its time, being banned or censored in various US states. To us, of course, it’s lost that frissance but it hasn’t lost its power to move. It’s a real and substantial story, but it’s is also a dance between four characters (five towards the end). Although the dance goes on for years – decades – it isn’t tiring, nor is the play tired out. It’s fresh and absorbing, and comes full circle nicely. As Nina remarks, the strange interlude seems to her to be the period between the start of the play when she’s living with her father, and the end when she’s about to marry a father figure. Her strange interlude is her independent, fatherless life.

Event: Strange Interlude

Where: National Theatre, South Bank, London
When: Until 12 August
Tickets: £12-£48

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