It feels somewhat unusual to find yourself thrown into a play in the aftermath of the story’s life-changing event; the dramatic moment when a life spins off track irreversibly having already taken place. But this is the position in which Eugene O’Neill’s effectively places the audience in in his novelistic, truly epic and utterly gripping Strange Interlude.
Originally a hefty five hour drama, the National Theatre has cut the story spanning more than 25 years down to just over three compelling hours, which, rather than fly by, unravel stylishly and steadily with surprises at every turn and a flawless performance by Anne-Marie Duff as Nina, who captivatingly develops the broken protagonist unpredictably from scene to scene.
From our first encounter of Nina as a bitter and heartbroken young woman, bereaved after the death of her great love in the First World War, to the final moments in which she is still seeking peace as a white-haired widow, she remains at the very centre of this universe with three devoted men circling her like planets, drawn inexplicably to her and unable to unstick themselves.
Father, husband and lover, Nina needs all three to survive, but for all her selfishness, her fragility and regret create a determination within her to make all as happy as she can. The put-upon “Good old Charlie” provides Nina with the missing father figure she continually leans on, the handsome and prescriptive – in all manners – doctor Edmund Darrell offers the passion she lacks in her marriage of convenience to the besotted and simple Sam Evans.
While these relationships become more entangled and complicated throughout the years, nothing is left unspoken or open for analysis with the characters recounting the inner-workings of their mind to the audience, often with hilarious or heartbreaking effect. From the outside Charlie is an unflappable pool of calm, but a manic look to the audience can signal an outbreak of lovesick angst, while Nina’s private confessions reveal a dark inner life where a confession of love and a warm smile is often followed by a darting look to the audience and a speedy retraction.
Charting the four intertwined lives as the unhappy quartet wrestle their way through the twists and turns of the years, Simon Godwin’s production is akin to losing yourself in a novel with all the detail and atmosphere that a great novel brings. Soutra Gilmour’s jaw-dropping uses the Lyttelton theatre’s huge stage to full effect, with gloriously designed rooms spinning around on a revolve or floating on and off to take us from grand old houses to cold expensive Manhattan apartments or, in one stand-out scene, to the deck of a boat while Guy Hoare’s equally stylish lighting streams through.
Charles Edwards brings humour and warmth to the production as the endearing Charlie, while Darren Pettie and Jason Watkins act as polar opposites to one another; Pettie the strong, together alpha male who eventually crumbles under Nina’s manipulative hand and Watkins the bumbling, but loveable fool whose happiness as her husband never wavers.
But, as O’Neill proves with these three steadfast men, there is something about Nina, and it’s undeniable that there is something about Anne-Marie Duff, encapsulating this complicated character with a juxtaposition of fragility and embittered strength. While the play is occasionally flawed in its ability to always feel believable, Duff’s sensational performance leaves you never once questioning why these men would do anything for her.