By Eugene O'Neill
National Theatre – Lyttelton
London South Bank, London SE1 9PX
Until September 1
O'Neill's creaky curiosity from 1928 gets a lavish treatment at the National Theatre, but they get the tone fatally wrong. "Excuse me while I have a Strange Interlude" quipped Groucho Marx in a wide-eyed aside to the camera, demolishing the ladies he's just been conversing with. It was a perfect parody of the technique O'Neill employed in this experimental piece where characters stop mid conversation to make frequent asides to reveal their inner thoughts.
It tells the story of the eternally unhappy Nina and the three men who love her: prissy bachelor Charles, adventurer Ned and geeky, guileless advertising man Sam who persuades her to marry him. Nina is a "modern" woman who takes what she wants from the men in her life. Radical in its time, today she comes across as unsympathetic and selfish.
Much of the critical response to this staging has applauded the fact that Simon Godwin has cut a 5-hour marathon down to 3:20, as if getting one's train was more important than serving the work. In achieving these efficiencies Godwin has witlessly trashed O'Neill's intentions by speeding the play up. This frantic pacing fatally ratchets up the melodrama, which then boils over into farce. At this pace O'Neill's mini soliloquies come across as tart, comic asides. Playing it for laughs is not the same as drawing out (any) humor within it. Soutra Gilmour's set, while historically perfect manages to be both huge and cramped at the same time, adding to the general awkwardness.
Anyone who saw its last West End/Broadway outing in 1985 has the memory of Glenda Jackson in the lead burnished in his or her heart. There, it was done unequivocally as tragedy and audiences coped, even for five hours. Here, poor Anne-Marie Duff and her fellow cast members are completely at sea.
There is no doubt the play is a problem; considered against the great O'Neill canon it probably should remain in the bottom drawer. It reeks of cod Freudianism (much in vogue at the time), in exploring premarital sex, Oedipal longings, hereditary insanity and abortion, but it deserves a staging solution that at least tries to meet O'Neill half way.
The disjunction between the angst of the characters and the social chitchat they express is a difficult one to pitch for the actors, and Charles Edwards comes off best as Nina's wittily urbane and devoted friend Charles. "What am I doing here?" he wails in an aside and gets the biggest laugh of the night. Laughs, in O'Neill? Darren Pettie, who has the swagger and charisma of a young Clark Gable is perfectly cast as the dashing Ned. Other supporting parts are less fortunate, particularly the mother-in-law (Geraldine Alexander). Her encounter with Nina, where they seal their pact of secrecy against Sam, is unintentionally hilarious and is played with such Am Dram po-faced-ness it could be a French and Saunders parody.
Because the actors don't have to reveal any underlying emotion (it's done for them in the asides) the piece is quite barren. There is no guesswork for the audience and so no engagement. This distancing isn't Brechtian, it's just clumsy.
By the last act we have shared in the full course of an entire lifetime of these characters and in any effective staging this would be a moment of great poignancy. Here instead we're left checking our watches and wondering if we might make that even earlier train.