Eugene O’Neill aimed, like Tennessee Williams, to articulate the 20th-century American soul; but, lacking Williams’ febrile southern poetry, O’Neill’s spiritual excavations are at best bald, at worst banal or even absurd. Strange Interlude is not O’Neill at his best. He intended its technique to be experimental, with characters’ dialogue punctuated by asides and longer soliloquies to the audience. Unfortunately – and despite a sterling performance from Charles Edwards in this National Theatre revival – the very first lengthy soliloquy from the character of Charlie Marsden is so ridiculously over-direct that it takes quite some time for play and audience to settle down into the same territory.
Part of O’Neill’s experimentation was to provide around five hours of playing time, which director Simon Godwin blessedly cuts to a little over three. By and large, it is only after the interval that O’Neill reins himself in to occasional asides, that we mostly accept them and the characters pretend to overlook that (as with last year’s Washington revival) sometimes those remarks draw open laughter.
Over 20 years or so, Nina Leeds attempts to find either “happiness” (not love, dear me, no) or a viable substitute for it or distraction from it, through entanglements with the four main men in her life: the aforementioned Charlie, a mediocre novelist friend of her father; Sam, a puppyish advertising man whom she marries; Ned, a passionate but sometimes honourable doctor whom she uses to father a son; and Gordon, her first fiancé, killed in the first world war before the action begins but such a brooding presence in her life that she even names that son after him.
Godwin has fashioned a truly first-rate production. As Nina, Anne-Marie Duff successfully weaves a coherent route through secrets and revelations both actual and threatened, relationships, infidelities and a generous helping of bereavements. Darren Pettie and Jason Watkins (in a remarkable Fauntleroy wig for most of the time) strike the required counterpoints as Ned and Sam respectively, and Edwards almost succeeds in making Charlie a credible viewpoint character despite his sorry absence of real insight. Soutra Gilmour’s revolve-mounted sets are a series of timber delights. But, as with Sam and Charlie to Nina, the staging’s devotion is simply not requited by the play itself, however much the latter may want to do so.