Let’s get this out of the way early doors: the National Theatre’s Strange Interlude is over three-and-a-half hours long (including a 20 minute interval).
Still reading? Good, because this humdinger will stay with you for far longer than its marathon running time. On its original Broadway release in 1928, the play by Nobel Laureate Eugene O’Neill was met by acclaim, opprobrium and mockery; it won the Pulitzer Prize, was banned or censored in many cities outside New York and parodied by Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers.
Its story begins with central character Nina Leeds (Anne Marie Duff) mourning the loss of her wartime beau from which point her relationships with the men in her life form the crux of the plot’s momentum. Father, lover, husband and son are all grist to her emotional mill as Leeds and her entourage move through the decades towards the tragic denouement. Abortion and inherited insanity are thrown in for good measure and the downbeat streaks of familial tragedy are no surprise coming from the pen of the dark mage of the stage O’Neill; both of his sons committed suicide and he disowned his only other child for having the temerity to marry Charlie Chaplin.
This production takes some warming to. The early acts are stodgy with exposition – the first of the traditional NT snores were heard after about 25 minutes – and the technique of the characters speaking their inner thoughts directly to the audience comes across initially as jarring or pantomime hammy. Be patient and rewards will flow: the second half makes the most of the production’s heartfelt script, dazzling set design and genuine barrel laughs. By the end, we could have spent another hour or two in the company of these brilliantly realised characters.
Duff excels as Leeds, a difficult role which would confound many a lesser actor. Being Human’s Jason Watkins revels as Leeds’ dappy suitor while Darren Pettie and Charles Edwards round out the play’s love parallelogram as Leeds’ adulterous paramour and longtime admirer respectively. The superfluous American accents occasionally grate and are carried off better by some than others with the younger acts especially struggling.
The running time may seem like an arduous ordeal but, come the ovations, you’ll be begging for more.