Eugene O’Neill’s STRANGE INTERLUDE is a rather difficult play to mount successfully, and the current Royal National Theatre production disappointingly falls far short of being successful. 

The play follows the lives of three men and the woman to whom they are inexplicably drawn for over forty years.  Nina Leeds is said to be a dynamic and beautiful woman which causes the first problem in this production.  Although Anne-Marie Duff is a solid performer, she has neither the beauty nor magnetism to understandably elicit such devotion.  Charles (Charley) Marsden (Charles Edwards) loved Nina from the time she was a young girl, and he buried that love in the care of his mother as Nina was in love with a young man named Gordon whom she elevates to hero status and bases all of her future relationships on her idealization of him after he is killed in World War I.

Charley is Nina’s confidant and stays with her even when she marries the somewhat naïve Sam Evans (Jason Watkins) who is inexplicably portrayed as a simple-minded fool here, but this is undoubtedly not the fault of Watkins as this smacks of the rather heavy-handed direction of Simon Godwin which is found throughout. Godwin either does not understand the script or has decided to simply throw an unsupportable concept at it which reduces the pathos and humanity of the characters into mild comedy.

The third man who comes under the spell of Nina is Doctor Edmund Darrell (Darren Pettie) whom she supposedly loves but over whom she chooses Sam to marry which makes little sense in this production when comparing a dashing doctor to a simpleton who has no set career at that point.   Nina also convinces Edmund to father the child she cannot otherwise have with Sam because she cannot have a child with Sam as she is warned by Sam’s mother that there is inherited insanity in the family.   She has the child whom she names Gordon, and Sam does become more confident, becoming a “go getter” who suddenly becomes a hugely successful businessman.

Both Charley, whose mother eventually dies, and Edmund remain extended family as Nina’s child grows up, loathing Edmond and never knowing him as his biological father.  Eventually, Sam dies, Edmund leaves having finally gotten over Nina, and young Gordon flies off to marry his love, a marriage which Nina did everything in her power to break as she seems to see her lost love Gordon in her son.

All that is left at the end of the play is the older, spent Nina whose machinations have come to nothing; she’s now facing a lonely life but is saved by Charley who is now an old, lonely man who has wasted his life waiting for her.  Charley is happy to finally have Nina, even though he is the default choice among her three swains.  It is incredibly sad that his life is sated by taking what has been left over.

As mentioned, Godwin’s direction is sadly misguided.  These characters are sad and deluded, but here, they are simply silly and willful with Sam emerging as the silliest.  Godwin has cheapened the sentiment and removed the drama. One prime example of this cheapened aspect is a scene between Nina and Sam’s mother (Geraldine Amos).   Mrs. Evans appears to be backwoods farming woman who should be milking a cow or digging potatoes for some reason.  This adds to the lower class appearance of Sam and makes Nina’s attraction to him seem even more ridiculous.  Most of the choices here make little to no sense.  I do not expect this from the National theatre.

The physical production is ridiculous as well.  “Designer” Soutra Gilmour has costumed the cast in often poorly tailored and/or fitting clothing which huge hems and poor stitching which can be seen from the second row of the stalls where I was sitting.  However weak the costuming,  Gilmour’s sets are truly bizarre and poorly designed.  In Nina’s father’s house, there is a stairwell outside of the door from the hall that is so close to the doorway that everyone must duck under it to get into the room.  There are also two tiers to the room which don’t even come close to being understandable.  Also, the set is on a turntable, so each section of the turntable makes it appear that the rooms are in a circular house as they are all pronounced wedges.

The weirdness continues to the New York house of Nina and Sam that has a bizarre cage-like structure in the middle of the set which contains a circular staircase.  It’s absurd.  Also, a boat set turns into a ramp for the final scene which looks like an unfinished boardwalk that is falling down and makes no sense as it is supposedly in the yard of Nina and Sam’s house.  The back wall also fits together poorly which just looks bad.

Like the direction, the physical production is not up to the standard of the RNT.  I have long loved productions there, but this truly looks like it’s a mediocre result of a year-end project of an inept or second-rate drama school.

The acting is variable.  There are three enjoyable performances that come from Patrick Drury who is on all too briefly as Nina’s father.  He is actually a believable human.  Emily Plumtree is charming as Madeline Arnold who  becomes Gordon’s wife.  She is actually animated and has tried to do something with her material.  Fortunately, Edwards is excellent as Charley.  He seems to understand the role and delivers a solid, fully rounded character and performance.    It is sad that he is one of the few characters in this play about whom one can care when one should care about all of them.

I wanted to like this production as I have never had the opportunity to see a professional production of STRANGE INTERLUDE before.  I think I may like this script best of all of O’Neill’s works as it doesn’t seem to be overly self-indulgent.  I just hope that this production isn’t a warning about what will now be happening at the RNT.  I do not know if Simon Godwin is a young or old director, but he seems to be a director who does not bother to fully understand the material, yet he has the confidence to believe he can do whatever he wants to it.  Because of this, STRANGE INTERLUDE at the RNT in London is a huge disappointment.  What a shame.