A LETTER FROM LONDON: Once Goes Busking and Strange Interlude and Sweet Bird of Youth are Revived

By Ruth Leon
22 Jun 2013

Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich
Photo by Manuel Harlan
All we lacked this month was Arthur Miller for a complete set of the Holy Trinity. London, always respectful of the great American playwrights, regularly revives Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill. I've only seen Strange Interlude once before and thought it was pretty peculiar then. Now the Royal National Theatre has given it the full treatment — star actors, major director, a fabulous design by Soutra Gilmour and all the trimmings due a major play by a major international playwright. Eugene O'Neill, who thought this might not be one of his greatest works, would have been amazed; in 1927, he had had to beg Lawrence Langner of The Theatre Guild to produce it at all.

The play's form was revolutionary. All the major characters talk directly to the audience, telling us what they are thinking, and their thoughts often contradict what they are saying. At its centre, as with so many O'Neill plays, is a woman. The conventional wisdom is that O'Neill's endless fascination with women stems from his inability to understand his drug-addicted mother or any of his three wives. I am beginning to wonder, on the strength of this rediscovery of Strange Interlude whether, in fact, he simply didn't like the entire gender. What has always seemed a strength — the flaws in his women which make them interesting theatrically and psychologically — is in fact a weakness, just the inability to see what makes us different from men.

Times were different then. The 20s did not, in fact, roar. Women were, if you believe O'Neill, saints or whores. At the core of Strange Interlude is Nina, who is neither, but O'Neill couldn't help condemning her for her sexual freedom and, as in so many of his other plays, the plot is about her manipulation of the men who love her. In truth, in Anne-Marie Duff's portrait of her, she is unacceptably hard and cold, her coolness exacerbating O'Neill's possible dislike of her. You may well ask why a playwright would write about so many women he didn't care for but, remember, not caring for is not the same as not caring about. In Strange Interlude more than perhaps in any of his greater plays, it is as if he genuinely has no idea, up to the end of the play, how Nina got to be the way she is, nor what the curiously flawed but beautiful woman will turn into, even after he's written it.

Not one but two professionals are credited in the Old Vic's printed program for Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth with voice and dialect coaching but, except for the two leading roles, taken by Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich, who are both Americans (although Cattrall was born in the UK), the Southern accents of the cast wouldn't fool a four-year old. My American guest was snorting with suppressed giggles as each new character failed to find the Deep South in their assorted voice boxes.

No matter. What you want to know is how Cattrall and Numrich measure up to the demands of this meditation on the aging process by the apparently washed-up former movie star and the beautiful young boy who unaccountably discovers that he is 29 years old and losing his looks with nothing to show for it. Cattrall's Alexandra Del Lago is unusally raddled and out of control to the extent that it's impossible to believe that she is still being cast in major movie roles. Numrich is certainly good-looking enough, but he plays the part as though he's trying to find himself rather than trying to find Heavenly, his hometown sweatheart. Heavenly, the daughter of the town Boss, is played rather creepily by Louise Dylan as though she were a ghost.