By Ruth Leon
22 Jun 2013
Photo by Manuel Harlan
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.