I just saw a very good production of Eugene O’Neil’s Strange Interlude at the National Theatre in London. As you’d expect from O’Neill, it’s massively ambitious, encompassing several decades in the life of Nina, a woman who is unusually self-possessed and sexually assertive (for a female character in a 1920s American play, anyway…).
The play is also formally experimental, using asides to present the inner thoughts of the characters. The ensuing contrast between what people say and what they’re thinking is often very funny, but the cumulative effect is to create the impression that in some ways O’Neill is trying to reverse engineer Shakespeare.
Shakespeare in his earlier plays took the inner self and externalised it, not only through the use of soliloquies but also, and more interestingly, by personifying human emotions. Hence, jealousy took the form of the villain John the Bastard in Much Ado, who in turn became the far more sophisticated and interesting Iago in Othello – until in Winter’s Tale the jealousy took place entirely within the mind of Leontes, and was all the more horrifying for that. Where Shakespeare started by externalising emotion and worked his way in towards psychological credibility, O’Neill is working his way out – perhaps trying to dramatise the inner life of his characters in the way that Joyce had done with Ulysses a few years earlier. But unlike in Joyce – and unlike in Shakespeare – O’Neill’s characters’ thoughts are sometimes so dense and intense that they don’t always ring true when spoken aloud: our minds move faster than our voices ever can, after all.
As a result of that technique, some of the exposition in the play feels a bit awkward, but the overall effect is very interesting, adding depth to characters who might easily be played as caricatures, and eliciting far more sympathy for the play’s mildly ridiculous author-figure Charlie than he probably deserves. And the contrast between how the characters appear to others and what they feel about themselves is both funny and poignant.
And the acting is very good. The lead role is played by Anne-Marie Duff. I’ve only ever seen her perform live once before, in Druid’s 2004 production of Playboy of the Western World. She seemed a bit uncomfortable in that role: she was playing opposite Cillian Murphy, and she seemed oddly subdued opposite his hyperactive Christy – and was also overshadowed by Aisling O’Sullivan’s impish Widow Quinn. But here she’s very impressive – those old reviewers’ clichés about actors ‘owning the stage’ are apt, since she confidently dominates every scene from start to finish. It’s difficult to explain that dominance by reference to one specific thing that she does: there is the decisiveness of her movements, the unobtrusive but unignorable melody of her voice, her skill in adding weight to the apparently inconsequential, and much more. But, to use another reviewers’ cliché, the most impressive aspect of her performance is that we never notice she’s acting.
Also impressive as Charlie is Charles Edwards, who manages the tricky balancing act of being the butt of many of the play’s jokes as well as the focal point for much of the audience’s sympathy. And as usually happens in the Littleton, there are lots of impressive scene changes on that lovely revolving stage in there.
Eugene O’Neill is sometimes claimed as an Irish playwright – though, of course, this usually happens only in Ireland. Strange Interlude is one of his least “Irish” plays, though its lengthy consideration of the ethics of abortion would certainly have an impact in the country today. But I still found myself regretting the fact that we rarely see these big American plays – the loose baggy monsters of the theatre world – in Ireland.
Since the turn of the century, most of Arthur Miller’s famous plays have appeared in Ireland (The Crucible at the Abbey and Lyric, All My Sons at the Abbey, View from the Bridge, the Price and Death of a Salesman at the Gate). Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar is about to be produced at the Gate, and there have been a couple of productions of Glass Menagerie by smaller regional companies. And the Gate staged Eccentricities of a Nightingale a few years ago. Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo have appeared a couple of times; Boston Marriage has been done twice (by B*spoke and the Gate), perhaps because it’s not a very typical David Mamet play. And I think I’ve seen three productions of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in Ireland: one at the Gate in the mid-1990s, another in the Galway Arts Festival starring John Mahoney a few years later, and then Druid’s production with James Cromwell in (I think) 2008. And one of the first shows I ever saw at the Abbey was The Iceman Cometh with Brian Dennehy, just over 20 years ago. So we do get to see the American ‘classics’ from time to time, but rarely see anything more unusual. I’d love to see plays like Miller’s American Clock or The Archbishop’s Ceiling, and almost anything else by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill.
I know that the economics of the Irish stage have an impact here: most of those plays I’ve mentioned call for a large cast and would be unlikely to attract a large audience without a star actor in (at least) one of the leading roles. And Strange Interlude is three and a half hours long, and Irish audiences are reputed to get cranky when faced with the prospect of missing their last bus home (aka last orders).
But I was struck tonight by the Irish echoes in Strange Interlude – the similarities between O’Neil’s women and Synge’s female characters, the hints of an affinity with O’Casey’s use of language (I could understand how the two men would end up being friendly a few years later)… And just as Irish writers influenced O’Neill (or were similar to him in interesting ways), I’m often surprised by the way in which so many Irish dramatists state, when asked who their influences are, that Tennessee Williams is one of the major figures in the development of their work.
Well – in the meantime, Strange Interlude is well worth catching if you are in London.