Thursday 25 July 2013

Strange Interlude at the National, or, At Last! A Funny (and Moving) Mockery of Theatre

For years I have watched directors mock the whole idea of theatre. They rip classic texts to pieces, they transplant them to locales to which they are unsuited, they put items of furniture on stage whose point is entirely unclear, and, when all those methods are exhausted, they have the actors start declaiming at you about the pointlessness of it all. On just about every such previous occasion these efforts have either proved boring or highly irritating. And it is now clear that none of them need have bothered, for a master has got there before them. That master was Eugene O'Neill and the play in question Strange Interlude which the National has now revived (though I gather in a somewhat truncated form as this version lasts a little over three hours while the original lasted five).

The principle conceit of O'Neill's play is that characters speak their inner thoughts direct to the audience as asides both when alone on stage and in the middle of dialogue exchanges and we must believe that only we, the audience, are hearing those thoughts. Now it is only fair to say that this does take some getting used to in the early scenes, but it entirely justifies itself later on. O'Neill also crafts a highly complicated plot which does verge on the ridiculous – again I felt there was a point being made about the potential absurdity of theatre here. But, and this is the crucial point, neither of these things are simply arid devices. For O'Neill also makes his characters devastatingly human. The emotional engagement here is not so easy as in others of his plays that I've seen, but as their various crises become more acute, their lives more entangled, the various devices give the situations both humour and heartbreak.

Two examples must serve to illustrate this. The first is from the brilliantly staged penultimate scene on a boat. All the characters are lent on the rail and Charles Edwards's repressed Marsden bursts out with “What am I doing here?” It's the kind of classic mockery of the whole idea of acting on stage which in other contexts makes me want to shoot everybody concerned but here it also fits his character completely, and it's hilarious. The second comes towards the very end when Darren Pettie's Darrell has to choose not to reveal the central secret on which the plot turns. The devices retreat and it is simply quietly heartbreaking.

The ensemble cast perform this tricky play pretty splendidly. In the central role of Nina, Anne-Marie Duff did, it seemed to me, take a few scenes to really settle, but it's a particularly tricky part because for much of the time we really only see her through the eyes of the men around her. I don't know whether the cuts had anything to do with this, but it is some time before you feel you really hear her voice. That said, she becomes increasingly compelling as the play proceeds, and is especially brilliant as the bitter old woman of the final scenes. As repressed mother's boy Charles Marsden, Charles Edwards is simply superb. He's obviously helped by being a kind of Nick Carraway type observer character so that the conceit of speaking inner thoughts seems perfectly natural with him from the outset – but his physical portrayal of the character is strikingly done, and consistently draws the eye. Both Darren Pettie (Edmund Darrell) and Jason Watkins (Sam Evans) who verge initially on caricature when they first appear become compelling figures as the play proceeds. Credit is also due to whichever of the three boys was playing the young Gordon Evans, Wilf Scolding (Gordon Evans) and Emily Plumtree (Madeline Arnold) who have to come in cold to the final scenes and are crucial to their success.

Soutra Gilmour's sets make excellent use of the Lyttelton's qualities. The rarely used Lyttelton revolve is deployed for the early scenes, with the stage cleverly shrunken down. Then after the interval it is substantially opened out allowing for a real coup de theatre in the penultimate scene which I won't spoil for those who haven't seen it, but which drew deserved applause. Simon Godwin's management of his personnel tightens in effectiveness as the play proceeds.

While the early scenes could possibly be improved upon this is overall a compelling staging of a fascinating play. All those modern day directors I mentioned at the beginning may watch this and weep for their own shortcomings. Anybody who hasn't already done so should make certain to catch this before the run ends in September.

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