Eugene O’Neill’s 200-minute Strange Interlude is a feat of endurance for audiences at The National Theatre but this sweeping and intensely emotional story is well worth the effort.
It’s not perfect but, after a slow start, you’re sucked into a tale of all consuming love, obsession and intrigue that builds scene after scene.
The writer is on familiar ground with his favourite themes of insanity and the wanton behaviour of women. In this case his protagonist Nina may not be a whore but she behaves pretty much like one.
Men just love Nina. She cuts a swathe through an army hospital, seduces a doctor, captures the heart of a family friend and marries a shmuck of a man only to breed with him. When that proves impossible she uses a replacement stud and must then keep her son’s paternity a closely guarded secret.
The men who dominate her life are like moths to a flame and each will be tortured and burned in the ensuing years as the emotionally scarred temptress manipulates, uses and destroys those around her.
Anne-Marie Duff may not have the traditional beauty of a siren but she wields the power of one to superb effect. Nina comes out of a nervous breakdown with a mission to replace a dead lover with another – whether it is a husband, friend, lover or her own son.
Faithful friend, writer Charlie Marsden, has known her since he bounced her on his knee and he wants to protect her. Doctor Edmund Darrell betrays the Hippocratic Oath by bedding her and innocent, gullible Sam Evans gives her the world – only to end up cuckolded.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning drama was originally more than four hours long and still needs judicial editing. It could lose at least 30 minutes without loss of pace or story.
And the experimental style of the piece has the characters constantly breaking off their dialogue to deliver soliloquies to the audience.
Imagine the story in comic-book form with a stream of thought bubbles accompanying every interaction. It’s not for everyone and I found it incredibly irritating and intrusive. I had a hankering to just tell them to get on with it and leave us, the audience, out of the equation.
Charles Edwards, whose wonderful diction was put to good effect in the stage production of The King’s Speech, and the NT’s recent political hit, This House, struggles with a variable American accent.
He also becomes so carried away with his asides to the stalls that Charlie becomes the unlikely comedy smash hit of the show. Actually the laughter provides a welcome relief and gives theatre-goers moments to recover after long periods of angst-filled melodrama.
You just know that Doc Darrell (Darren Pettie) is a cad and a bounder when he affects a tribute to his screen alter ego, Clark Gable, complete with raffish ‘tache. While pity poor Jason Watkins who is almost acted off stage by a succession of receding hairpieces and loud checked suits.
Most of the characters exhibit moments of insanity – except the very one who is accused of it – and it’s hard to empathise with any of them, including the infatuated mummy’s boy and (almost) confirmed bachelor, Charlie.
But the powerful and engrossing story does work its magic aided by some spectacular sets that sweep onto the National’s vast Lyttelton stage. After the clever use of a revolve to deliver a series of houses and rooms we move forward more than a decade into a swish mansion and eventually onto the decks of a luxury yacht.
Strange Interlude, in a play full of them, runs until August 12. For tickets and information contact the box office 020 7452 3000 or visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
*Don’t forget that you can see Helen Mirren in The Audience at Leighton Buzzard Theatre, Aylesbury’s Waterside Theatre and Cineworld Milton Keynes next Friday (June 14) as part of the NT Live initiative. She gives a remarkable performance as the Queen with superb support from her Prime Ministers, including the award-winning Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson and Edward Fox as Churchill.