Spanning a period of more than a quarter of a century over 9 acts and with a running time of several (estimates I have seen vary between 4 and 9) hours in its uncut version, this play by Eugene O'Neill first appeared in 1928. Though one could certainly describe it as an epic in terms of length, it is much less overwhelming in terms of the number of characters. And in this brilliantly conceived, astutely-cut revival by Simon Godwin, it proves more than easily digestible, even if it still takes over 3 hours to deliver.
As one might imagine given the original length of the play, the story is complex and involved. It revolves around Nina Leeds (wonderfully played by Anne-Marie Duff). It starts just after the end of the First World War. Nina's dashing, athletic and universally admired fiancé, Gordon Shaw, has been killed in action, and she is full of regret that she did not sleep with him before his demise. So she decides to head-off to nurse injured veterans and ends-up offering them rather more than simple medical care. Her father has also died, so she is now on her own, though a family friend Charles Marsden always seems to be on-hand. Charles doesn't know if he loves Nina or not, but seems nevertheless enchanted and magnetically attracted to her. However, he is persuaded by a doctor called Edmund Darrell from the hospital where Nina works that, to avoid further promiscuity, Nina should marry the rather unprepossessing Sam Evans (well-played by Jason Watkins). Nina duly gets married and soon finds herself carrying Sam's child. However, Sam's mother reveals that there is inherited insanity in the family and advises Nina to terminate the pregnancy. But Nina wants to give Sam a healthy child and so suggests to Edmund that he fathers another baby with her. He agrees and in the process they inevitably fall in love.
Eugene O'Neill employed two devices that aid our understanding of the characters motivations but also add significantly to the play's length. First, the characters address the audience directly through soliloquy, and they also deliver asides during their dialogue with other characters. This provides both some very funny moments, as well as some insightful and touching ones.
Superb and sensitively directed performances keep this marathon story ticking along slickly. Anne-Marie Duff's inspired and mesmerising Nina is a charming and beautiful woman but is also extremely vulnerable and rather frail. She is haunted by the devastating impact of her fiancé’s untimely death and seems a victim of circumstances even if there are times when she takes decisive action and appears in control. Charles Edwards is fine form and provides much of the humour as the the prim and affected writer Charles Marsden; and Darren Pettie is the blunt, bluff and handsome doctor Edmund Darrell who is so besotted by Nina and thus in her control that he cannot bring himself to reveal the true nature of their relationship to either his son or Nina's husband.
The explanation of the title comes appropriately from Nina at the end of the piece when she describes human lives as being “strange dark interludes”. That seems pertinent, and not merely in the context of Nina's life and relationships. However, there is not really very much that is 'strange' or risqué about the subject matter for modern audiences. But this is nonetheless a hugely compelling story, splendidly re-told by director Simon Godwin and exceptionally well-designed by Soutra Gilmour.
"Despite its account of love, lust, betrayal and madness, the play is often startlingly funny as well as touching...It’s a wonderfully gripping production of play that keeps springing surprises to the end "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"...stand-out performances from Anne-Marie Duff and Charles Edwards, shines with quiet magnificence..."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
"Most satisfying production."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"Verbally, it’s not Stoppard or Shakespeare, but it’s a wonderful dramatic construct, and full of theatrical excitement."
Michael Coveney for The Independent
Michael Billington for The Guardian