Belvoir presents STRANGE INTERLUDE by Simon Stone after Eugene O'Neill at the Upstairs Belvoir St Theatre.
This STRANGE INTERLUDE is a new Australian play by Simon Stone after the Eugene O'Neill original, written in 1927, presented on Broadway in 1928 by the Theatre Guild at the John Golden Theatre. This play was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1928.
In preparing for the performance of this new play I read the original by Eugene O'Neill. I had read it was once before, many years ago, but barely remembered it, except for the impression that the leading role, that of Nina, was a monster of a part. In fact, it was because I had read reviews of a Glenda Jackson performance in London that I felt impelled to read the play, then. STRANGE INTERLUDE with Ms Jackson was performed, both, in London, and, then in New York, on Broadway, in 1985. It was subsequently filmed as part of the American Playhouse series, for television, in 1988.
The original is a nine act play covering more than twenty-five years and was presented in one sitting that began at 5:30 in the afternoon, paused for an eighty minute dinner intermission, and ended after eleven at night!
After re-reading the play, I felt it was noteworthy, firstly, because of its length - truly epic.
Secondly, because of the use of "asides", employed, to reveal the inner monologue, the concealed thoughts of the protagonists - a stream of consciousness - made flesh, (influenced by the work of James Joyce's novels: A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN (1916); ULYSSES (1922), perhaps?), some have called the play an O'Neill novel in everything but form: "soon we shall see a play that will have the length, breadth and thickness of a novel." The problem with the "asides" is that they sound mostly mundane, and do not reveal much that is profoundly deep in the interior of the character's lives or motivations. STRANGE INTERLUDE is melodramatic and "the asides... are often embarrassingly glib slivers of psychological jargon" and the Freudian influences much, much, too obvious - a too conscious use of psychological (Freudian inspired) writing. It is a bit like the over simplistic use of Freud's [and others] ideas that Alfred Hitchcock has given us in films like, say, SPELLBOUND, MARNIE, or PSYCHO - today, breathtakingly laughable. In its time, perhaps, entirely sophisticated.
Thirdly, the play's principal character, Nina Leeds, has the complexity of, say Hedda Gabler, Susan Traherne (of David Hare's PLENTY) or any of the Chekhov women. According to two of O'Neill's biographers - Arthur and Barbara Gelb:
[Nina] is made up of all the women O'Neill had ever known and incorporates aspects of all the female characters he had thus far depicted. Endowed by the sum of O'Neill's own fantasy-idealism and love-hate, she is a fascinating monster, embodying all that is both purest and blackest in Woman's soul. She is in turns, an innocent lover of a noble boy (Gordon Shaw, a college paragon whom she sends off to World War 1 without having gone to bed with him); a guilty mourning fiancee (Gordon is killed in the war); an embittered daughter (she blames her father for having prevented the consummation of her love, out of his possessive jealousy); a wanton (her subsequent guilt compels her to give herself to as many wounded war veterans as will have her); an unbelievably self-sacrificing wife (she marries a boy, Sam Evans, she does not love, because he worshipped Gordon and because he needs her); a criminal (she submits to an illegal abortion, when she discovers there is insanity in her husband's family); an ardent mistress ( she takes a lover, Edmund Darrell, in order to present Sam with the child they crave, and then finds that she cannot give Darrell up even after her purpose is achieved); a pseudo daughter (after her father's death she pursues a platonic relationship with an old friend, (prissy) Charles Marsden, who loves her asexually); a mother (first a happy one, then a jealously possessive one); a mean mother-in-law (she loses her son to a girl she loathes on sight); and, finally, a widow, longing to "rot away in peace" (her husband dies of a surfeit of high spirits). Nina is indeed weighed down by O'Neill with heavy literary symbolism, and, is in some ways a classic example of the soap-opera heroine.
My impression: Nina, a role that requires great skill and technique, and a complex comprehension to see the depths of the psychological dilemmas, and, further, of the ways and means to reveal those depths of the writer's obsessions, to chart the sprawl of her life from a young Zelda Fitzgerald-like neurotic, to simmering splenetic middle-age, to ultimately the sphinx like husk of a defeated widow. To embody Nina's battle cry, one of O'Neill's favourites - "Life is a lie", the actor needs extraordinary vocal and physical gifts - range - and a sophisticated access to the inner-life of the character and the self, to shift shape. "Say lie," Nina at one point commands another character, repeating the word herself : "L-i-i-e ! Now say life. L-i-i-f-e ! You see! Life is just a long drawn out lie with a sniffling sigh at the end!"
So, what of Simon Stone's new play "STRANGE INTERLUDE after O'Neill"?
Firstly, it is only two hours long. Starts at 8.00 pm and we are out the door by 10:30, or less, including a twenty minute interval. Over half the playing time of the original has been edited out.
Secondly, most of the asides have been deleted and/or stripped down (some of them, however, replaced with adolescent sexual pre-occupations: the new opening speech by Charles Marsden (Mitchell Butel) for instance. I thought "Oh Oh, more entrances to the fantasy life of the young male writer. Hello, Dr Freud!"
Thirdly, a character called Nina is still at the centre of the play. All of the characters have been retained, and the narrative much the same.
The Set Design of the original was highly defined naturalism, for this production (Robert Cousins) we have another 'installation art' white -box with intimations of the work of James Turrell, a no-visible horizon, infinite space feel, Ganzfeld effect, along with blinding, almost obliterating white light (Damien Cooper), that highlights the pink pigmentation of the actor's skin in a garish way. Into this dazzling space the actors, in between each scene, arranges furniture and props, even light stands spilling slightly more sympathetic colours onto the action, Meyerhold-like, before dissembling back into the personas of the play (what the director's point in introducing a nude shower scene for two of the characters in the ubiquitous perspex box 'ploy' was, I couldn't really fathom. Originally the scene took place in the library. It seemed a gratuitous gesture. ("Because I can"?) Gratuitously expensive to me as well! - it seemed). This is a theatre piece, this is a play statement. The costumes (Mel Page) are contemporary and capture a sense of clothing rather than fashion.
Mr Stone tells us, "I'm trying to write a play about the time we live in." A play "that is opposite to 'male pride'. INTERLUDE", he told the Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum, April 28-29, 2012), "is a play about a woman kicking against the pricks - literally." Certainly, the O'Neill original seems to be more the story of a woman, suffering from the collateral damage of a war shock, in modern terms, a post traumatic reaction to the death of an idealised romantic infatuation - a fighter pilot called Gordon, and of the consequences of her cannoning recklessly out-of-control, like a pin ball,grappling with a series of fateful wrong choices of her own. In my experience of this modern-look production, of this slim-lined consumable play by Simon Stone, I had the impression of a superficial gen-Y woman, whining her way through a series of self inflicted consequences with a sense of entitlement to her right to a better life. Mr Stone's Nina is the cause of her own misery and the men about her are not "pricks" but benign weaklings. And she takes advantage, petulantly, ruthlessly and carelessly.
Mr Stone in an extensive Writer and Director's note in the program defensively justifies his recent efforts in re-writing the classics: SPRING AWAKENING (Wedekind); THE ONLY CHILD (Ibsen's LITTLE EYLOF); THYESTES (Seneca); THE WILD DUCK (Ibsen's THE WILD DUCK – digression, I thought a better contemporary adaptation could be the recent Iranian film A SEPARATION). Stone complains in the SMH article that "there's this idea that I'm creating "consumable classics". It frustrates me because the theatre is there to be consumed and because I spend a massive amount of time writing these plays." He goes on to say, "It would be much easier to just do a faithful staging". Give or take the "massive time" spent in writing his plays, maybe STRANGE INTERLUDE by Eugene O'Neill is a far better play than STRANGE INTERLUDE by Simon Stone, and maybe if the time spent on re-writing the play had been given to a creative effort to attempt to find a contemporary way to faithfully stage the original, a far better night may have been had by the audience, than we did have. I am not sure whether it would be easier, though. And maybe Mr Stone was 'ducking' the problem by re-writing it - cutting it. Mr Stone has never shown us an attempt of a faithful 'campaign' to solve the great writers works he has appropriated. Easy the great classics aren't. The problems proffered by the writer is what partly makes them GREAT. And the solving of it, is what marks out the great directors. The relevance of Mr Stone's STRANGE INTERLUDE, to our times seems to have got lost in the production journey along the way, and it is in pygmy scale along side the original.
The masterpiece that followed STRANGE INTERLUDE, was an even longer and greater play, MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA. It is the length of the play, the enduring of it, that brings it to its greatness. THE ICEMAN COMETH is similarly enhanced by the re-iteration of the life in the bar at length. The length is the ultimate power of A LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, as well, if directed competently. Reading the reviews of the Glenda Jackson production in 1985, it is suggested that the play is full of peculiarities for a contemporary audience, but with the impersonation that a great actress can bring to Nina, and patient, respectful direction, it was the length of the play that allowed, eventually, the visionary technique of Eugene O'Neill to have his construction of the scenes pay off. The audience was moved. The television film, similarly, in its length, paid its due to the audience experience. Did Mr Stone consider doing the original..? "Absolutely. I thought about letting it be a totally messy, complicated theatre experience (not withstanding its Pulitzer prize!) where you let the audience get bored for half an hour and then you can suck them back in again. There's virtue in that. But then I just started writing." As Charles Marsden, the writer, in O'Neill's play asks, "Why does everyone in the world think that they can write?" (ask about EVERY BREATH.) For some, what we may have on the Belvoir Upstairs stage instead, is a totally clumsy, uncomplicated theatre experience where the audience can be bored for the whole of the evening and never find a way to be suckered into an aesthetically-distanced story-telling exploration. As a contemporary play, at least in this production, I do not know what the actual point of this new text is. I could not grasp the illumination of the modern world in it, except as a consumable soap-opera around some trivial people. Not having the new text to read I am not able to lay the problem at the hand of the writer.
But, I do feel the Director has some culpability in the casting of the play. The role of Nina in both writers' versions is necessarily crucial for the play to be engaging. Emily Barclay as Nina lacked the depth of the characterisation required to reveal the full potential of the play. Mr Stone talks as to the impulse he had to cast Ms Barclay, "I saw Emily in [Benedict Andrew's] THE SEAGULL and I was astounded by her ability to make it seem like you're hearing those lines for the first time. When Emily acts, you feel like a door in you has opened to a truth that has existed in you for a long time but you still feel surprised". (Sounds as if Mr Stone may have been in a fever of some kind!).There is some veracity to the freshness that Ms Barclay brings to the readings of her text and that they can sound as if it has never been said that way before. In truth, they cannot have sounded that way before because it is the unique life force of Ms Barclay that is speaking them, bringing the reading to life. What Ms Barclay has, along with all good actors, is the ability to courageously reveal herself in the words of the text. There, is her individuality. It shone in her film SUBURBAN MAYHEM. The trouble for me is, that in all of her other work, that I have seen, it is the incandescent truthfulness of Ms Barclay that I receive, and nothing else. Just a brave personalisation with not much if anything of what the writer has contributed. Ms Barclay has reduced all of the work I have seen her do to herself, she has never expanded herself into the writing. There is no transformation, there is no possession. So that having watched her at Belvoir in GETHSEMANE, THAT FACE and THE SEAGULL it has been exactly the same character/performance : Emily Barclay! It is all drawn from the inner life of Ms Barclay with little or no adjustment to the writer's creation on the page. She does not seem to have any secondary resources to draw on, to create beyond her own self. I wondered if she had ever read the original. The design decision to allow the personal 'ink' of Ms Barclay to be read as to a clue to the nature of Nina is a mistake. When one tries to make sense of the choice of Nina with a tattoo of what looks like the publicity image of Fantine from the musical LES MISERABLES on her right calf and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN on her left thigh, along with a technicolour flowering across her upper back, what are we to conclude, to be provoked to think, to endow, upon Nina. For this is simply the naked self of Ms Barclay that we are seeing, for it is hard to place those choices, even in the contemporary world of this Nina, as directed by Mr Stone, unless, it is another gesture of post modern alienation, ironic obfuscation.
Nina in the O'Neill says "...the only living life is in the past and future ... the present is an interlude ... strange interlude in which we call on past and future to bear witness to the living!" Unfortunately, all Ms Barclay brings to all of her work is the present, the spontaneous, the 'modern', (the 'ink'). What the actor does not reveal is the past or the future of the character. The conundrum for any actor is, that as the actor, one must know everything about the character, but in the moment of acting one knows nothing but the present. It is in being in both psychic states that the actor is assisted to find, with the empathetic guidance of the director, the storyteller's clues in the writing, to give an audience, a knowledge of the character's past and future. It is that craft that makes good, possibly great acting and an indelible experience. It allows the audience to endow and feel 'smart', part of the creative experience of the artifice in front of them. It allows the audience to have the moving catharsis, because they have committed something of themselves to the empathy they feel for the character, embodied by the actor. A visit to the Downstairs Theatre to the performance of FOOD, and watching all three of those actors, especially Kate Box, will clarify what I am talking about. The contrast is shocking.
This production is indeed modern and contemporary if post-modern irony and detachment is what 'the creatives' are searching for. Where we can sit back and judge these people and feel kind of smug that none of our world is much like this. There is little in this production and or version of this great play that would allow this to be a possible truism: "Our lives are merely strange dark interludes in the electrical display of God the father". The bleached lighting of the production hardly points to any electrical display or signs of a God. This Interlude is strangely blue/white, arid and barren.
The other actors give admirable performances considering the strangely shallow reading of the central role of Nina. Toby Truslove gives an outstanding performance of flair and concentration. Mitchell Butel, Anthony Phelan, Kris McQuade, and Eloise Mignon are stellar supports to the evening. Akos Armont, in a role written for this play by Mr Stone, brings honesty and warmth to the little he had to do - an oddly moving moment in an otherwise cold production. Toby Schmitz, too, brings integrity to the difficult role of Farrell, although the actor was tempted sometimes to demonstrate skill over character veracity, such that there was a round of applause for a virtuosic display of verbal technique from the audience (- a comic irony?) That it had not much to do with Farrell it seemed to me and more to do with Mr Schmitz, brings some foreboding to the coming PRIVATE LIVES. I hope he has an Amanda to be his equal and a source of discipline.
One does wonder about the fate of the upcoming DEATH OF A SALESMAN under the direction of Mr Stone. It is a great play and knowing of many of the recent productions of this play, just how much does it need to be "manipulated" to be relevant for a contemporary audience? None, if history is our guide. I hope in this instance that Mr Stone keeps more than the "remarkable skeleton" of Arthur Miller's play. Sam Strong with his recent triumph of a modern classic LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES at the Sydney Theatre Company achieved much with his intelligent risk-taking for the contemporary audience and the play. His insight and diligence worked. The casting was impeccable.
In a hilarious interview on "Books and Arts Daily" on Radio National a few weeks back, Michael Cathcart in interviewing Richard Bean, the English playwright of THE HERETIC, now performing at the Melbourne Theatre Company, observing Mr Bean's recent 'output' (oh, what a horrid word!), observed that he had adapted Goldoni's THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS for the National Theatre as ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS, and that it had transferred to the West End and to Broadway, and now was preparing a commission, adapting THE COUNT OF MONTE CHRISTO , for the same company, asked if that was a good thing. Mr Bean replied:
If you write a new play and are a living playwright you might be lucky to play to 100 or 200 people in a little studio round the back near the kitchen bins and the skips, but if you adapt a classic they'll put you in the main house and then you can afford to eat.What, with Mr Stone taking THE WILD DUCK to Norway, maybe he is hoping that STRANGE INTERLUDE might take him over to the US. A cunning plan, indeed, Mr Stone.
1. O'NEILL by Arthur & Barbara Gelb, Jonathan Cape, 1962.