Theatre review: Strange Interlude, National Theatre, London

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"Pardon me, while I have a strange interlude," said Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers, initiating one of very few jokes ever made in the cinema about the late-1920s experimental American theatre.

He then snuck away for an “interior monologue” just as Eugene O’Neill’s characters dance in and out of their onstage dialogue to address the audience and betray their secret thoughts.

O’Neill aimed to write a stage play as a novel, showing each character at that intersecting moment of saying what is felt and what is heard. His portrait of a lady is that of a New England New Woman, Nina Leeds – played effervescently at the National by Anne-Marie Duff – and the three men in her life, as well as her father and her son, who brings her full circle to the lover she lost two days before the Armistice.

Strange Interlude has been called the worst play ever written by a major dramatist, and the play that did most to popularise Freud in America. But it remains an important text, even though a 1963 Actors Studio revival in New York drew a volley of abuse from Robert Brustein (among others) denouncing “nine acts of blah-blah-blah.”

Verbally, it’s not Stoppard or Shakespeare, but it’s a wonderful dramatic construct, and full of theatrical excitement: Simon Godwin, a bright Royal Court associate making his National Theatre debut, whips us through, in well under three-and-a-half hours, from the aftermath of the Great War to a futuristic New York metropolis (great design by Soutra Gilmour) and a Ploughkeepsie boat race in 1945.

Glenda Jackson, in a 1984 five-hour West End revival (“Dynasty dressed up as art” sneered another critic), gave one of her greatest stage performances as Nina, eliding the interior monologues and outer dialogue to make a seamless musicality.

Godwin’s company does the opposite, retaining the bumpiness indicated in the text where the soliloquies and asides are printed as indented paragraphs.

This results in more jokiness, much of it emanating from the fierce style and comic invention of Charles Edwards as Nina’s childhood sweetheart and Jason Watkins as the ingratiatingly pleasant bore she marries. The father of her child is very well played, too, by the handsome American actor Darren Pettie.

Nina sees the lies behind the sounds called words, and Duff gives a scintillating account of a woman at sea with her psyche and splayed in the spider’s web of her men’s affections.

To 12 August (020 7452 3000)

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