30 August 2013

Strange Interlude at the National Theatre

Most of the theatres that I go to are small and do free seating so there is no great point in booking a long time ahead. The National Theatre is not like that so when it finally dawned on me that they were staging a Eugene O'Neil play that I had not seen I was very lucky to bag a seat in the centre of the circle, my favourite seat in the house. The God of Returns was obviously smiling on me.

Strange Interlude, we learn, is that awkward period between the past and the future and the play takes us through a series of strange interludes in the life of Nina.

We start following here in her early twenties when World War I has just ended and taken the life of her love. The tale ends by the grave of her husband some thirty years later.

The story is all about Nina and the men in her life, her dead love, her father, an avuncular family friend, a doctor she works for, a man she is persuaded to marry and her son named after her lost love. The story takes over three hours to tell but never ceases to engage and captivate.

It is a not untypical life. There are scenes of tenderness, sorrow, neurosis, love, happiness, despair and gentle companionship.

The darkest moments are not shown to us but are mentioned and the big secret (that I'll keep a secret) is told to us in the audience but not shared with many of those on stage, especially not the two people most impacted by it. The little secret, the inherited madness, does become known to most people but not to the one who has it.

There is a lot of direct address to the audience and while some have accused this as lazy writing (i.e. the easiest way to show what a character is thinking is to get them to say it out loud) it works very effectively in the hands of a good playwright like O'Neill. Or Shakespeare.


Strange Interlude is mostly a play about dialogue between well defined characters and so the set has little to do except become different rooms and it does this without a fuss. The bigger job is with the actors who have to convince us that they are those well defined characters and without exception they do.

It is a remarkably good production. Everything about it is excellent. The bedrock of a solid O'Neill script is done justice by everyone involved, especially the cast. This was the National Theatre showing us just why it is the National Theatre.

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