Eugene O'Neill's 1923 epic is the closest that straight drama gets to opera, with each character voicing lengthy asides and soliloquies in order to express their often conflicting emotions about the increasingly fraught situation they find themselves in... The role allows Charles Edwards to steal most of the night's biggest laughs... Director Simon Godwin ensures the dialogue rattles along at a lick and has assembled a near-perfect acting company... And at its centre sits Anne Marie-Duff with a performance that surely ranks as one of the greats of recent times... Do not be put off by the length; this is an evening to savour and another jewel in the crown of Hytner's National.
It is, as one writer put it, the "novel in play form" and it serves to make us intriguingly complicit. It is also a nicely involving gesture from the imposing Lyttelton stage... Duff's lively, vulnerable face is a constant joy to see as she ages triumphantly down the years, taking Nina through some pitch-black emotions en route to ultimate reconciliation. She is matched by Edwards as family friend Charles Marsden, tempted and tortured in equal measure by the mysteries of sex... Edwards excels at bruised decency like no other actor and he brings the house down in Act Eight when he bleats, "What am I doing here?" Simon Godwin, making a National debut of quiet assurance, directs with precision and squeezes maximum value from a series of stately scene changes.
Yet despite its account of love, lust, betrayal and madness, the play is often startlingly funny as well as touching... All this takes some swallowing. But the psychological perception and emotional rawness of O'Neill's writing, coupled with the superb performances and emotional truth of Simon Godwin's gripping production, brilliantly designed by Soutra Gilmour, make it surprisingly easy to suspend one's disbelief... As the troubled Nina Anne-Marie Duff brings a thrilling raw intensity to the stage... Charles Edwards is often wonderfully funny as the prissy old bachelor who also holds a torch for Nina, and Jason Watkins is both touching and highly entertaining as the delightfully dorkish husband who has no idea how he has been deceived. It's a wonderfully gripping production of play that keeps springing surprises to the end.
Soutra Gilmour's ingenious designs, which range from an upstate cottage to a Manhattan duplex to the deck of a yacht, are not the only reason to catch this most satisfying production. There is also decent acting, despite O'Neill's use of persistent asides... Miss Duff's Nina, though perhaps never quite the ‘corker' she is said to be in her flapper waistbands, has a bewitching quality... Jason Watkins is a classic American geek, Sam, who dreams of marrying Nina... and the story, while never quite succumbing to the grimness we might await, acquires the elegaic beauty of quenched fury declining into acceptance of God's great scheme.
But the fact is that O'Neill's device in this work is very like those comedy cuts, only without the clarity of video language. Actors interrupt conversations with sudden turns of the head towards us and snappy mini-soliloquies, sometimes only a couple of words like "Damn it!" or "It's revolting!" — then back to naturalism. It can be disconcerting, and the first half does jerk along, making it very difficult for director Simon Godwin to keep up a rhythm even with this excellent cast... Jason Watkins is perfect in the part, pinkly sweet beneath a mop of butter-coloured curls.
Simon Godwin's nimble Lyttleton revival, the first in Britain since 1984, not only reduces O'Neill's baggy monster to a neat three-and-a-quarter hours, but suggests it is less a searing drama about Nina than a spry comedy about her long-time admirer, Charles Marsden... Anne-Marie Duff does a fine job in charting Nina's transitions, and is especially good at her early frazzled neurosis and later maternal fixation. Duff is infinitely adaptable, but even she finds it hard to discover a through‑line on the role. The evening really belongs to Charles Edwards as the neutered novelist, Marsden. He not only acts as a chorus, slyly commenting on the hypocrisies of Nina and the surrounding society, he also makes brilliant comic use of O'Neill's asides, in which characters reveal their secret thoughts.
Strange Interlude is not O'Neill at his best. He intended its technique to be experimental, with characters' dialogue punctuated by asides and longer soliloquies to the audience. Unfortunately – and despite a sterling performance from Charles Edwards in this National Theatre revival – the very first lengthy soliloquy from the character of Charlie Marsden is so ridiculously over-direct that it takes quite some time for play and audience to settle down into the same territory... Godwin has fashioned a truly first-rate production... But, as with Sam and Charlie to Nina, the staging's devotion is simply not requited by the play itself, however much the latter may want to do so.