Leaving the Lyttelton auditorium last night I overheard a fellow audience member say to their friend, "wow, that was like watching someone's whole life". And that's precisely the feeling you get after three and a half hours (reduced from the usual five) in the company of Nina Leeds and her three suitors.
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 effect is sometimes comic, such as when Nina (a resplendent Anne Marie-Duff) tells her dull but kind-hearted husband Sam "I love you", then cocks her head to the side and reveals "I almost do". But more often the technique is oddly hypnotic, allowing us an intimacy with O'Neill's superbly drawn characters we couldn't otherwise expect.
The downside of O'Neill's great dramatic experiment is that the asides are still a mere dramatic construct; whether the technique genuinely offers us greater psychological insight, rather than merely appearing to, is questionable.
Nina's marriage to Sam (brilliantly rendered as an overgrown baby by Jason Watkins) is a loveless connection, one that is designed to give her the child she desperately wants so that, in her own words, she can finally "give myself". But when Sam's mother reveals a family secret that could jeapordise the mental health of the unborn child, Nina takes drastic measures to ensure a healthy one.
Without giving too much away her scheme involves a handsome doctor, Edmund Darrell (Darren Pettie), some rather questionable interpretations of genetics and a secret that will simmer for 20 years.
All the while, like Horatio to Hamlet, bachelor author Charles Marsden waits patiently for his moment with Nina. The role allows Charles Edwards to steal most of the night's biggest laughs ("what am I doing here?" he wails aboard a boat watching Nina's now grown-up child compete in a rowing race). But he also provides the evening with its touching coda; that truly settled companionship is only possible when sexual politics have subsided.
Charles Edwards (Charles Marsden), Anne-Marie Duff (Nina Leeds), Emily Plumtree (Madeline Arnold), Darren Pettie (Edmund Darrell) & Jason Watkins (Sam Evans). Photo by Johan Persson.
Strange Interlude - the title is drawn from Nina's line towards the end of the play, that "our lives are merely strange dark interludes in the electrical display of God the Father" - may be a long evening, but it rarely drags and feels oddly action packed. Director Simon Godwin, a rising star I first encountered as an associate in Bristol, ensures the dialogue rattles along at a lick and, most importantly, has assembled a near-perfect acting company.
Played out on designer Soutra Gilmour's jaw-dropping carousel of a set (each revolve unveils a new, richly-detailed world), this is an evening that reclaims O'Neill's drama not as an 'experiment', but as a superb piece of dramatic storytelling that flies in the face of today's stunted attention span culture.
And at its centre sits Anne Marie-Duff with a performance that surely ranks as one of the greats of recent times (certainly an improvement on her last outing, as Berenice at the Donmar). She utterly convinces as a woman who successfully holds a triangle of "lover" (Darrell), "husband" (Sam) and "father" (Charles) in thrall for over two decades, presenting as she does the play's central proposition that perfect love is only possible when received in multiple ways, from multiple sources.
Do not be put off by the length; this is an evening to savour and (need I say it?), another jewel in the crown of Hytner's National.