Strange Interlude Review, Eugene O’Neill, National Theatre

The hardwood, slatted stage with a revolving hexadecagon centre (that’s 16 sides) created by Soutra Gilmour was a vision of set-design mastery. Gilmour is the set and costume designer responsible for some of this season’s hottest offerings on the theatre circuit: ‘The Hot House’, ‘The Night Alive’ and ‘Strange Interlude’. In fact, she is one of the most successful designers working in Britain today and is becoming a sort of seismograph for knowing the best of what’s on. Her set for ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, of wooden towers intricately cut out in patterns, is one of the most beautiful stage sets I’ve ever seen. But the revolving stage for ‘Strange Interlude’ came close, with its movements accompanied by stoncking orchestral music by Philip Glass (I think). It transformed seamlessly from rooms and corridors interlocked on the hexadecagon, into a boat which took up the entire width of the Lyttleton Theatre and was effortlessly moved around by the stage hands and received applause. It was breathtaking. Designers deserve more credit and people like Soutra need to be talked about.

strange interlude set

The beautiful and startling set aside, the stars of ‘Strange Interlude’, billed as a masterpiece of American theatre and written in the 20s but set in the inter-war years, triumphed. Anna Marie-Duff (Shameless) plays the passionate, determined Nina, who desperately seeks escape and happiness after her lover is killed in the First World War and she bitterly regrets not sleeping with him. Always looking on, is the older grumpy ole bachelor Charles (Charles Edwards), a family friend. Nina after her series of sexual escapades eventually choses to marry Sam, the epitome of niceness, having been  cajoled by Charles and because Sam ‘really loves her’.

Charles’ catch-phrases (‘Dear Old Charlie’) became ever more comical through repetition, as the play progressed into its more sombre moments. He is Nina’s farcical, older suitor, which is known only to the audience in the script’s punchy and frequent asides. The comedy is built ingeniously around dramatic irony, produced by these asides, which the cast played with vigour and fantastic comic pace. This was O’Neill’s experiment: direct speech to the audience, producing hilarious conflict between voiced thoughts and things really said. These, of course, are reminiscent of  the ‘asides’ so well-known to us in Shakespeare.

O’Neill confronts huge questions of free will and the spectres of the past which seem to haunt Nina, infecting her every move. Simon Godwin’s production of the play is unafraid to confront these themes of happiness and destiny. Despite the nine acts and renown for its epic, novelisitc length, this revival has kept it down to under three-and-a-half hours. The fraught tensions of the relationships and emotional fluxes, which take the play on a genre-crossing romp from intense happiness and deep love, to superficial humour and intense, tragic irony, together with surprises that abound to the very end, make this a superbly compelling production.