LONDON — In the high-tech Limehouse Studios lately erected alongside the Thames in the East End, Glenda Jackson is videotaping a 4 1/2-hour version of Eugene O'Neill's monumental and innovative nine-act play from 1928, "Strange Interlude." It will air on PBS, in an unprecedented scheduling, in three 90-minute segments on the successive nights of Jan. 18, 19 and 20 as the premiere 1988 offering of "American Playhouse."
Now, early in a morning session, Jackson says, "Would you kindly turn the monitors so I can't see the bloody things?" The voice is politely modulated, but it would still cut steel.
She wears a dark red wig, bobbed short and banged in the '20s style. The role spans roughly 26 years, transforming her from an ingenue whose first great love, a flier, has been killed in World War I, to an embittered widow with an unutterably complicated emotional life behind her.
Jackson is one of the most intense and dedicated actresses of any time. She can be lightly flirtatious and sexy, as she was opposite George Segal in "A Touch of Class" and sparring with Walter Matthau in "House Calls."
But her reputation and, it would seem, her inclinations rest with those roles that explore the depths of the ravaged soul and seek the farther reaches of human experience. If there were a kind of composite image of the roles she has played, she would likely be seen as a solitary being more often than not, a woman of free spirit trying to defy a tethering world, and displaying a steely strength in triumph or defeat.
She appears to thirst for challenge the way most actors thirst for fame and fortune. She has won fame for being terrific again and again, but has not accumulated a lot of fortune on a scale Hollywood would find acceptable.
This is Jackson's first extensive experience with tape rather than film. She did a 90-minute television special called "The Princess and the Goblin" in 1983. It was of a considerably lighter weight, and it hasn't been seen here.
"It can be quite dangerous," Jackson says of the tape technique. She does not like to watch dailies when she's filming, feeling that they distract from her concentration on the ongoing performance, and she feels the same about the monitors and the replays.
"You can find yourself rushing to make decisions, with everyone trying to put an oar in," she says. "I prefer to ignore it."
Jackson played "Strange Interlude" for 171 performances in London and New York, and the critical and commercial success of the production sparked the interest in the television version. But transferring it to the small screen poses some nice questions.
"If you take it too low, you're not doing the play. If you take it too big, it will be too big for the television screen. 'Strange Interlude' is not naturalistic or realistic. O'Neill writes speeches not dialogue. If you go too far down the road toward naturalism, it's like doing Shakespeare without the verse.
"There's no big action (most of it is offstage) and there are no big images. You have to believe the lines are of sufficient interest before you're sucked in. But once the hook is in, it doesn't let go."
The play is a huge challenge, not only for its length and its time span. There are also the "thoughts," as they are being called during the production, to distinguish them from the speeches. O'Neill, ever innovative, has his characters voice their inmost feelings. MGM filmed the play in 1932 with Norma Shearer and Clark Gable and the thoughts were done as voice-overs, the characters staring stonily into space. It evidently made for a fairly static film.
In this television version, which is being directed by Herbert Wise ("I, Claudius," "Rumpole of the Bailey"), the characters will voice their thoughts, but with a filtering technique in the recording that will give these words a slight but noticeably different timbre from the speeches.
Jose Ferrer does the cameo role as her father, Ken Howard plays her husband, David Dukes the doctor-lover, Edward Petherbridge (the new Lord Peter Wimsey in a "Mystery" series starting this fall) a bitchy but faithful family friend.
The miracle of tape, although the performers do not universally regard it as such, obviously, is that there are not only monitors on the stage floor (to make it seem unnervingly like acting into mirrors) but in various rooms throughout the building. Big Brothers watch you everywhere. The producers and invited visitors can sit in the Clients Room, seeing not only the takes as they are recorded but also hearing the small talk, watching the technicians hustle about and listening to the director's guidance and sudden expletives when, very rarely, an actor blows a line.
The play has been opened up slightly; the Thames near Oxford doubles for a Hudson River regatta that is backdrop for one late scene, and a house in Kent becomes an Upstate New York manor. But, Jackson says, the play doesn't need any more.