I can't think of an evening I've spent in the theatre where the acting was so good and the play was so terrible. After the 90-minute first half watching Anne-Marie Duff and the other actors fight a valiant losing battle with Eugene O'Neill's script, I headed for the exit -- but I was still glad I bought a ticket.
This production at the Lyttelton, still in previews, is a rare revival of a lesser-known O'Neill play, written in 1923 and winner of a Pulitzer in 1928. Well, theatre was different then. The play has dated very badly, not only because of its melodramatic style and declamatory dialogue, and its theme of inherited insanity. But its worst feature is the 'experimental' use of direct speech to the audience throughout. O'Neill takes the theatrical device of the 'aside' and turns it into the essence of the play, so that each character spends half the time revealing his or her inner thoughts directly to the audience. The result is to remove the uncertainty and ambiguity which are the life of drama. If the audience members are given a privileged and permanent channel to the characters' true thoughts, then they have absolutely no work left to do. Peter Nichols' Passion Play, in which the two main characters are given alter egos on stage to voice their thoughts, suffers to a degree from the same weakness. I'm all in favour of soliloquies and a direct dialogue across the fourth wall between audience and actors, but it has to be done in moderation. And the dramatist has to understand that 'truth' is an infinitely flexible concept. A soliloquy can be just as deceptive as a dialogue between two characters. O'Neill's over-use of this technique destroys the audience's chances of independently understanding and analysing the characters. Which is why I left at the interval, frustrated at being spoon-fed by the playwright. Anyway, I think I learned something about playwriting, so I'm glad I was there.
Anne-Marie Duff, appearing at the National for the first time since her stunning Saint Joan, is mesmerising. Charles Edwards, Darren Pettie and Jason Watkins are also excellent. Simon Godwin directs with great authority, but I would really like to see him in charge of a better play. Should the National Theatre have left O'Neill's odd script undisturbed in the archives? On balance, I applaud their choice to do something difficult and challenging, instead of an easy popular revival. O'Neill at his best is a stunningly good, though verbose, playwright. Some of my most memorable evenings in the London theatre in the last few years have involved his work. A Long Day's Journey Into Night with David Suchet last year was brilliant, as was A Moon for the Misbegotten with Kevin Spacey and Eve Best at the Old Vic in 2006, and Thea Sharrock's production of The Emperor Jones with Paterson Joseph at the National in 2007. I also loved the revival of three of his short shipboard plays in the atmospheric surroundings of the Old Vic Tunnels (now sadly closed). Strange Interlude is by comparison a failed theatrical experiment, though not quite on the scale of the NT's revival of Ibsen's Emperor and Galilean. Yes, it is fascinating as a revival, though perhaps not for the reasons the playwright intended.