Strange Interlude | Belvoir St Theatre

Benedict Andrews’ recent, desperately ill-fated foray into the esteemed space of Belvoir Upstairs came replete with extensive programmatic director’s notes which were better than the actual script. Simon Stone, another of our theatre’s fashionable, youngish things, has indulged the same privilege, justifying, at length, his contemporary take on Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, which draws upon the structure, characters, essence, cadence and rhythm of the original, but which subverts the style, idiom and dialogue to bring it into a contemporary, nominally Australian frame, to the extent possible.

I say to the extent possible, because, for example, Anthony Phelan’s Professor Leeds, despite a local accent (and some dodgy diction) still tends to put one in mind of a New England academic, for some reason. Some of the situations, too, don’t ring quite true of our direct experience, but of a more exotic one, harking back several decades. So, it’s all very well, in theory, to argue that the theatre space is made for a ‘conflation of time’, a kind of temporal as well as geographical rootlessness, as Stone cogently, articulately and persuasively does. But in the end, in practice, there may be a great deal of pretence and conceit, despite the philosophical correctness.

That said, Stone is correct, also, in underscoring an oft-forgotten, overlooked, yet crucial fact: “Rewriting pre-existing stories has been the rule, rather than exception, in theatre, since its origins.” O’Neill was, assuredly, a proponent of reinventing ancient Greek drama, as evidenced in Desire Under The Elms and Mourning Becomes Electra.

Just as O’Neill busied himself elevating the everyday to the fever-pitch of Greek drama, Stone pays homage to O’Neill and this rich tradition, which well-and-truly predates the invention of theatre as we know it. It’s an informed, sophisticated approach which, to again draw a comparison with Andrews’ unfortunate and ill-fated offering, has been, if appearances are anything to go by, subjected to rigorous and comprehensive dramaturgy by Jennifer Medway.

Stylistically, perhaps the strongest link to O’Neill is the stark duality of dialogue and soliloquy. It’s as brave a decision as when O’Neill made it in 1928. And one which harks back to Shakespeare and other Jacobean playwrights, as well as to Greek drama itself. Unlike the protracted monologues one finds in the Bard, however, O’Neill’s and Stone’s are mere asides, having more in common with, say, a Dick Tracy cartoon than Hamlet. And we can be thankful that Stone has truncated the play from O’Neill’s four hours to two. Phew!

Regardless of the underpinnings, Stone has redrawn and reanimated O’Neill’s characters superbly, thanks to a brilliant cast. At the centre is Emily Barclay as Nina, devastated by her fiancee’s wartime death. Just as the audience of O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winner would’ve have referenced WW1, our minds leap to Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere. And just as eulogies tend to overstate the liveability and achievements of the deceased, Nina has erected a shrine, in her mind; a monument to a man she hardly knew, who, in death, is elevated to veritably messianic status.

It leaves her with a horrible, unachievable legacy: finding a man who can live up to Gordon. Worse still, he desperation is compounded and judgment further compromised by her now seething sexual hunger: she and Gordon never consummated their union. Barclay, however, is consummate in the role, believably building a complex character, conflicted by moral compunction versus a spontaneous, hedonistic nature.

Nina has a secret lover, in her ‘uncle’ Charles Marsden, a distinguished yet insecure novelist, a longstanding family friend who see to bounce her on his knee. Even now, in supposedly more enlightened times, one can barely help but smart at the near-incestuous implications; this, thanks to the latent paranoia gnawing at the edges of our society, which sees a grooming pedophile behind every swingset. Yet both O’Neill and Stone judiciously underplay the grey areas of parental (father-daughter) and near-parental love: the point at which the boundaries may give way, opening the floodgates to an outpouring of physical affection. It’s not quite unspoken, not quite overt; all the more potent for occupying the space between.

Phelan is her father, the very picture of the awkwardly caring, well-intentioned but clumsily parental single dad, teetering uncomfortably between permissiveness and tough love. It is the synergistic art of the original writer, adaptor and director that enables so much to be intuited implicitly through each character. Oh yeah, the actors might have something to do with it too. Phelan’s only flaw is, or was, I found him difficult to understand at times, by reason of projection as well as enunciation.

Marsden is played by Mitchell Butel, who calibrates his role just so, such that, later, when he gets drunk at a sporting event, his bottled-up frustrations and bitterness pours out, as more booze goes in. It not only makes for quite sublime comedy, but a good deal of tragedy, with an authentic resonance. Despite his success, Marsden, a demonstrable mummy’s boy, still treats his former thesis supervisor, the prof, as something of a father figure. He craves Nina, as do others, and, inasmuch, the attraction is almost fatal. Nina is blithely aware of this, but feigns innocence and ignorance. Again, these subtleties emerge without any real explicitness: on that level, at least, it’s theatre on an almost magical quality.

Akos Armont’s latter appearance as Gordon Shaw, the golden-haired soldier that haunts the lives of so many, makes little more than a cameo. But he’s dished-up just as you and, those that revere him, would have him: handsome; sacrificial; generous; considerate; sensitive; a veritable lamb of God. He is almost as unreal as the impossibility of his appearance, albeit in flashback.

Twelve-year-old Callum McManis has some voice work to do, but shows profound promise as an actor. In fact, he’s made good inroads into mastering the craft already as the young Gordon, son of Sam and Nina (but, of course, there’s a twist in that tale). With the perspicacity of childhood, which knows fewer neuroses and forms of denial, he senses something between his mother and another, resenting the latter bitterly as a result.

And you’ve gotta love Toby Truslove, as Sam, an under-confident, uner-achieving, geekish, gawkish, mawkish, yet sweet, self-deprecating young man, who shyly and secretly covets Nina. He almost continuously jokes to cover his awkwardness. Later, though, he runs into success, or it into him, and he’s reinvented as a somewhat uglier, philandering, brash, boorish adman. We’ve probably all seen these transformations, in ourselves and others, so, again, the character rings true, despite a heavy lean in the direction of caricature.

Kris McQuade is Mrs Evans, Sam’s mum, who confides a terrible secret in Nina, a very inconvenient truth (as far as we know) which changes the course of numerous lives. Nina must carry this secret like so much excess baggage. Eloise Mignon is well-cast as little Gordon’s (now not so little) girlfriend, who Sam takes more than a passing interest in.

Toby Schmitz is another standout, as the drinking-and-smoking shrink Ned Darrell, who might himself be diagnosed with Asperger’s such is his social inadequacy. Schmitz really understands, gets inside and expands the role to its fullest potential: we see his insecurity masked by arcane medical expertise, which he effuses in bouts of verbal diarrhoea, as well as his intensity, vulnerability and naivety in the game of love. His struggle to reconcile loyalty to his friend, while being magnetically drawn to his friend’s wife is another recognisable brush with reality.

From the start, one is arrested by set designer Robert Cousins’ curvaceous, parabolic sweep of snow-white backdrop assists greatly in supplanting notions of time and place, suspending specificity and allowing us to float though our own places and spaces, stored in memory and in the mysterious places between our very cells. While Stefan Gregory’s composition is sharp, sympathetically stark, smart and dynamic in its own right, it does smack of a certain, emergent, jagged sameness that’s very in at present.

Still, Strange Interlude not only opens another window into the work of O’Neill, but into our own lives and experiences. It’s food for thought, recollection and reflection: something global, which acts local; a significant and memorable tribute, in its efficacy on nearly all levels, to cast and writer/director. Simon Stone’s star is still very much in its ascendancy.

The details: Strange Interlude plays Belvoir St’s Upstairs Theatre until June 17. Tickets on the company website.

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