National Theatre at the Lyttleton Theatre
We meet Charlie [Charles Edwards] first. Sitting in Professor Leeds' stylish study, he delivers a long monologue, perfectly timed, about his life as "slacker bachelor", touching on his "sex life among the phantoms", with plenty of knowing glances out to the stalls.
Every character in O'Neill's unfashionably wordy and discursive domestic tragedy [here ruthlessly pared down to 195 minutes] has an inner voice, right down to the small boy who is named for one man, fathered by another, and grows up to step into the shoes of a third.
And good old Charlie makes up four – the men in Cara Nina's messy emotional landscape.
Played with searing honesty and frightening intensity by Anne-Marie Duff, she ages over the three hours from the young woman who's haunted by the ghost of her airman betrothed, to the weary widow, her father, husband, lover, son all gone, who falls into the comforting arms of the crusty, cynical novelist who's been around the whole time, watching the action in this "strange interlude", neither past nor future, which is our life.
The writing is sometimes poetic, sometimes melodramatic. Simon Godwin's near-faultless production tends to play those asides for laughs, which I suspect is not always what the playwright intended.
In Act One, the scenes are played out against a traditional tripartite revolve: the study ["Greek" – and there are shades of Sophocles in this tangled tragic piece], Sam's family home, the seaside retreat. After the interval, Soutra Gilmour's evocative design grows bolder with the century, with a brutal art deco apartment, until the yacht becomes the jetty, with wide late afternoon spaces for the final farewells and the endgame.
Patrick Drury delights, all too briefly, as the Professor, Geraldine Alexander is the desperate mother of Sam, Nina's callow second choice, ironically the only sane man, but "an adolescent mind in an adolescent country" in Charlie's acidic aside. Sam is brilliantly done by Jason Watkins, morphing from awkward, gawky youngster through frustrated failure to fulfilled father and successful ad-amn, and finally, run to fat, "vulgar bore" the proud dad cheering on his son's crew.