The whiteness is total, all encompassing. Like a void, it swallows the vanishing point into its depths so you are convinced something strange is happening in the fabric of reality. Like the backdrop in a photographer’s studio, Robert Cousins’ set for Belvoir’s latest production (a Simon Stone rewriting of Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play) creates a blank page in the open book of Belvoir’s corner. Ingenious in its simplicity, it recalls Peter Brook’s at-the-time groundbreaking A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970, the foremost example of Brook’s ‘empty space.’ You might’ve seen the pictures – a white cube of a set, with doors and panels set in its walls, swings hanging from the flies, the giant red feather of Titania’s bower, the actors dressed in brightly-coloured costumes, purples, reds, yellows, blues, greens; a circus-like aesthetic, as it’s often been described as – and as the play progressed, you could tell that the audience too, was aware of the intertextuality, the meta-theatrical allusions at play. Much of what Brook wanted to do in his Dream, was to strip away the tradition of realism that theatre had become entrenched in since the 19th century, and liberate it into a heightened realm of metaphor and symbolism, where the audience was part of the theatre-making process, involved implicitly in completing the circle of theatrical illusion.
Simon Stone, aware of these thoughts and the history of theatre-making, writes illuminatingly in his Writer and Director’s notes in the programme. “The theatre’s ability to represent other eras and other worlds in realistic or expansive detail is not its strong suit,” Stone writes. “Its ability to provoke an audience’s imagination is. The imagination exists outside time. It is best provoked by placing ideas, language and images in a void, leaving the rest to be filled in by the audience.” (p5) I get the feeling that, watching Stone’s recent work at Belvoir – a rewriting of The Wild Duck (after Ibsen) and his direction of Lally Katz’s Neighbourhood Watch, both in 2011 – this almost complicit relationship with the audience, to engage them and invite them into the worlds of the play is at the forefront of his aesthetic and style, as is the process of “[raising] to the level of classical drama the everyday lives of people like us.” (p5)
Strange Interlude’s production’s aesthetic was almost too simple to be true. Items of set were brought onto the white sheet of void as the scene required them – a lounge for the professor’s study, a singular cylindrical rubbish bin, a functioning shower cubicle, a jetty made from interlocking sections, a strip of synthetic grass and three director’s chairs, a child’s train set, a rope swing, like Brook’s, that descended from the ceiling. Additional lighting was introduced, sparingly, to create different times of day or create a mood that was unable to be achieved otherwise. Yes, it might’ve been the principle of Brook’s ‘empty space,’ but it created such a rich and evocative mood, a kind of searing whimsy whereby entire locations were conjured from a mere symbolic representation, an abstraction. It was a bit like a colouring-in book, I suppose: Stone and Cousins created the outline, and as you engaged with their ideas and the space, you coloured it with your own emotions, reactions and experiences.
Stone’s rapid-fire dialogue, tightly-written and extremely well-rehearsed at times became too quick, too slickly rehearsed, to be real; yet instead of becoming laughable what you got was an immediate sense of exuberance, urgency, vitality, thisishowitis, (a bit like the frenetic energy in Kerouac’s On The Road). Toby Schmitz’s scene towards the beginning with Mitchell Butel was one such example, as was Schmitz’s continuation of the same scene with Toby Truslove. Much has been made of O’Neill’s writing style in Strange Interlude – “[in] his desire to represent the mental life of the over-educated, under-stimulated, upper-middle-class of his time, he struck upon a formal conceit that is extraordinary in both how radical and simple it is[:] the soliloquy.” (p5) Initially jarring as the fourth wall was blatantly shattered, as characters moved from a dialogue scene to a soliloquy of their intense thoughts and emotions and back again, a performance quirk or device became apparent: if it was a soliloquy, there would be little or no movement in the background of the scene, and the characters’ focus would remain as it was before the soliloquy began. As the use of soliloquy became increasingly bold and creative (the ‘shower scene’ between Emily Barclay and Toby Schmitz is one example, as is the following jetty scene with Barclay, Schmitz and Truslove), the line between soliloquy and scene became blurred until you weren’t quite sure which was which. Out of the shower, came Barclay’s Nina dressed in a swimming costume. Actors-cum-stagehands moved the shower cubicle out of the way, as the resultant steam softened the edges of the jetty being set up in the foreground; an abbreviation of a ladder was placed on the edge and Nina climbed onto it in one movement, effectively walking out of the water, and the scene moved on, from one time to another, two or three months later, effortlessly, brilliantly, simply. Instances like this made the production sing with a vitality that was sorely lacking in Belvoir’s previous show (Benedict Andrews’ Every Breath. (The less said about that, the better.)).
O’Neill’s characters (via Stone’s sharp finely-wrought script) were like cosmic asteroids on a collision course: their lives colliding, their orbits crisscrossing and bisecting, intersecting in space and time. Sooner or later you just knew they were going to crash and burn and splinter and break apart, heartbreak and turmoil and possibly carnage spread in their wake, no one safe or exempt from their path.
I particularly liked the story’s chronological framing (in terms of the ordering of scenes as they occurred in the play’s world, not as they were presented to us on stage) of Nina farewelling her Gordon’s – first her fiancée who will soon die in the war, later her son. In a moment of almost heavenly irony, Nina loses both of them one after the other in Stone’s sequencing of scenes. As she stands in the departure lounge of an airport we never see, her late fiancée leaves, followed a beat later by the entrance of her son’s girlfriend, Madeline. As Nina taunts Madeline, we get a sense that even though she might be bitter, Nina is still a strong woman who has come through the tumultuous twenty-five years of the play’s narrative. The play’s final image – of Nina standing alone in the white blank page of void – is potentially nihilistic, but I read it as that in the end, Nina is the only person who’s ever going to be with herself for her whole life, regardless of who weaves in or out of her life’s journey. It’s like Nina says in the second scene, ‘sometimes you’ve got to stop doing things for everyone else, and live for yourself.’ I read the play and its physical visual representation as kind of comment on the here-and-now of contemporary ‘over-educated under-stimulated upper-middle-class’ life: if you have everything, if you can get everything and anything you want whenever you want, what do you live for? How do you create meaning in your life if everything is transitory, insubstantial, acquired and discarded at will?
Ultimately, and to Stone’s credit, this new envisioning of Strange Interlude “offers a touching insight into the minutiae of our daily worries, joys, and hopes, set against the vast backdrop of life’s irreversible decisions.” It does so with a searing warmth and humanity, a creative flair and a spark of genius that lingers with you long after the play has concluded. It is perhaps not a strange interlude in our life at all, but rather a hauntingly poetic one, and a rather brilliant one at that.