When originally performed in 1928, Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, was well over four hours long. Four hours is hardly an interlude. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama that year, but hasn’t aged well. The plot line and much of the dialogue spoken between characters would not be out-of-place in an episode of Days of Our Lives. While the themes of female desire, adultery and self-sacrifice remain interesting, they have lost the shock value they would have had.
What saves the National Theatre’s 2013 production from falling into a morass of melodrama are the asides which O’Neill incorporated into the script and the excellent delivery of the asides by the cast. Spoken directly to the audience, these asides show the contrast between the bland public comments the character was making versus their cries from the heart revealing their true thoughts. Somehow, these short soliloquies cut through the dross and connect to a modern audience. Bravo to Simon Godwin for chopping the epic story down to three and a quarter hours.
The central character of the play is Nina Leeds, played wonderfully by Anne-Marie Duff. When we first meet her, Nina is a fragile creature, grieving over the death of her fiancé two days before the Armistice. Blaming her father for preventing her marrying her fiancé before he shipped out, she throws herself into working as a nurse for injured soldiers and comforting them any way she can. This makes her feel emptier than ever, and so she is convinced into marrying a solid man who will give her children to focus on. But there’s a catch.
The play follows Nina’s fortunes over a couple of decades, and the intertwined fortunes of the men in her life: the Elmer Fudd-like but successful Sam, her husband; Charles Marsden, a tweedy novelist and father figure; and Dr Ned Darrell, her dead fiancé’s friend, doctor and lover. Charles Edward plays Marsden to perfection, his delivery heightens the possibly unintentional comedic elements of the play. Darren Pettie as Darrell is also strong, morphing from a disinterested physician to a besotted lover to a tortured father.
Some of the supporting cast, including Nina’s father and Sam’s mother, were much weaker than the leads. Thankfully their roles were contained to single scenes, and this gave time to admire the set. From the Frank Lloyd Wright-esque study, to a Bates Motel-ish farmhouse, to the deck of a yacht, it was stylish and wonderfully evocative in every way. Nina’s outfits were similarly fabulous.
Throughout the performance, you keep thinking that things will go horribly wrong for Nina, a woman who has transgressed the social mores of the time. But they don’t quite. Furthermore, you keep wondering why on earth a well-meaning bumpkin like Sam deserves being treated with such forbearance. The message of the play is, in a way, egalitarian. Having a baby will give both a man and a woman a sense of purpose, “save” them. The happiness of others is more important than one’s own, and whether male or female you should sacrifice yours. They’re not really rousing mottos to live by.
Overall, the play is a well-performed interlude that ends on a strangely optimistic note.