‘Strange Interlude’ at the National Theatre

I can remember quite distinctly seeing Glenda Jackson in the West End production of O’Neill’s Strange Interlude in the 80s, probably because of her performance, but also because it was the first time I had ever seen a theatre bar selling sandwiches to sustain the audience through the performance.

The new production in the Lyttleton has been abridged to fit into a 7 until 10:15 running time, and, apart from a slight numbing in the nether regions, it’s hard to believe that so much time had passed, I was so engaged.  From overheard conversations on the way out, it seems that my opinion may not be universally shared, but there’s no news in that.

The play centres on Nina, who lost her ideal love, Gordon, a college athletics star, in the last days of the First World War.  That loss dominates and colours her whole life, as well as that of all the other men who try to love her.  There is Charles, poor old Charlie, a friend of her father’s who camouflages his love in his vague, avuncular manner, Sam, her husband, who comes from a family scarred by generations of mental illness, Ned, a doctor and Nina’s lover and the father of her child, and Gordon, her dearly loved son, who cannot ever love her back enough.

The plot is that of melodrama involving fidelity and infidelity, love and deceit, highly wrought emotions and jealousies, spread over twenty years during which the emotional and financial fortunes of the characters wax and wane.  It is played out with the frequent use of soliloquies directed at the audience, revealing the innermost thoughts of the characters, which are often at odds with what they say to the other protagonists.  (It brought to mind my recent outing to see Passion Play in which each main character is played by two actors, allowing two realities to be expressed at the same time.  It works better in Strange Interlude.)

It’s an examination of whether it is better to be dutiful and honourable or to strive solely for happiness; and even if happiness is the only goal, whether it is attainable if you abandon loyalty and responsibility.  Nina for all her searching for happiness, and all the men around her who love her, seems rarely without one kind of anguish or another.  Of all of the characters, it is only Sam,  too dim to understand what is going on around him, accepting everything at face value, who appears to be happy.

As everything revolves around the character of Nina, the burden of the success of the production falls on the lead actress; we have to sympathise with her anxieties, her changeability and her dilemmas, and most importantly we have to believe that she is truly so fascinating as to keep three men in thrall to her over the decades.  Anne-Marie Duff is fantastic in the role, full of nervy intensity, and when she is on stage it’s impossible to take your eyes off her.

The staging was clever, making full use of the Lyttleton stage and the revolve for the interiors in the first half, and then opening the whole area up, and sweeping the cast in on an impressionistic boat deck for scenes at the shore (with the sideways nod to Titanic which seems compulsory these days in scenes involving women near ship railings).  And poor Sam has to wear some truly ridiculous outfits including large chequered suits and jumpers tucked into his trousers; but mostly I was watching the performances and enjoying them, and being surprised when it all came to an end.

So ignore the doubters and go and see it if you can.  Let me know what you think.

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