"If only you could read my mind!"
Written in 1923, Eugene O’Neill’s original script for Strange Interlude spans 25 years in nine acts. It begins in a bloat of mise-en-scéne: a library with musty books crowded onto shelves; tree-dappled afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows; dull heavy furniture. Maybe it’s just my paperback copy but you can practically smell the dust.
From the opening moments of writer-director Simon Stone’s adaptation of Strange Interlude, it’s clear he’s taken the original text apart atom by atom and built it anew. This version begins with a blinding, blazing vision of an endless abyss and a young woman staring and stepping into the white light.
Nina Leeds (Emily Barclay) is in love with a ghost – the ghost of her soldier sweetheart Gordon Shaw, the object of her unconsummated desire. She becomes an electrical conductor for heartbreak: in an ill-fitting marriage to the smilingly oblivious boob of a man Sam Evans (Toby Truslove), in an affair with the smooth-talking doctor Edmund Darrell (Toby Schmitz), even in the effeminate embrace of lifelong friend Charlie Marsden (Mitchell Butel). Only after she’s endured every sort of loss – not only the loss of her soulmate but the loss of her father, the loss of her unborn child, the loss of her lover – does Nina find calm and contentment in a son: Gordon Jr. But even then it’s agonisingly clear that all this could be undone with a few words.
The initial fascination of O’Neill’s Strange Interlude was in the way its characters uttered their innermost thoughts out loud. Every private ponderance, every secret, every regret, recollection or reverie revealed to the audience wholesale. Every battle of conscience fought out in the open. It’s beautiful on the page but perhaps perilously close to melodrama and soap opera when enacted. The 1930s film version starring Clark Gable illustrates the problem – a silly mess of harried voice-overs and eyebrows.
But Stone is far more frugal with the inner-monologuing than O’Neill, dispensing with much of the incidental stuff and instead corralling his characters’ thoughts into full-blown soliloquies. It’s in this mode that we observe the extent of Charlie’s self-deception, witness the final wishes and regrets of Nina’s professor father (Anthony Phelan), eavesdrop on a sodden and self-pitying Sam in the glass cell of a shower cubicle and, of course, experience the ache of Nina’s deepening despair. A window into the souls of characters who are constantly biting their tongues, at war with themselves or dying inside.
The set, designed by Robert Cousins and lit gorgeously by Damien Cooper, is a white room a universe away from that other white room from Stone’s Thyestes. Where that set felt like a compression chamber; this set opens up the theatre into an edgeless, depthless, boundless void – an infinite expanse of retina-searing white, all paths leading simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. Only crucial furniture and props of symbolic simplicity appear in the space: the shower cubicle, an ash/trash receptacle, a swing, the endless circular track of young Gordon’s toy train set. (The business with the train is particularly eloquent.) The uncluttered immaculacy of the space, of course, is in total contrast to the messiness of the characters’ lives.
As usual with Stone, the casting feels not just appropriate but predestined. Nina’s three stooges turn Strange Interlude into the funniest Simon Stone production yet. It’s impossible not to feel for Truslove as Sam – flaccid of personality and cock and oblivious to the end. (Sam, I mean, not Truslove.) Schmitz too is in winning, verbally athletic form, getting off on every interaction with the audience while staying obediently on the leash. (Edmund wrestling with temptation and lust is funnier and sexier than certainly O’Neill might have anticipated.) Butel’s Charlie is also very fine – and an absolute riot when his accumulated frustrations finally burst and froth over.
For her part, Barclay puts in a performance that leaves one grasping for metaphor. One moment as carefree as a shampoo commercial, the next a butterfly trapped in a tempest, the next radiating window pane-rattling intensity. Her virtuosic handling of the emotional extremes of Nina – bitter daughter, blissful mother, loathing wife, lusty lover – is extraordinary to behold. Belvoir audiences are very fortunate to have witnessed Barclay’s growth as an actress over the years. Hopefully there’s more to come.
At the end of the play, the white room of Nina’s mindscape looks as it did when we started, apart from the accumulation of grimy marks various people have left behind. Stone’s economic adaptation is excellent throughout, but it’s a particularly blessed relief that he’s scrapped O’Neill’s embarrassment of an ending. Unlike the original, this Strange Interlude delivers a stunning, satisfying final scene that throws light on everything that precedes it – a fitting end to not only the audience’s journey but that of the characters.
For those familiar with the work of Stone and these performers, part of the impact of Strange Interlude lies in it being a transparently personal piece of art. Stone sculpts the production out of the modelling clay of his cast’s personalities, letting them not just act their roles but exude them. The pairing of actor and character is so perfect that it sometimes feels the veneer between the two distorts or disappears. As well as that, those who have read about Stone’s own life – he’s a generous interviewee as well as a generous director – will recognise some of his own emotions and experiences embedded here, even echoes of his words in the voice of Nina. It’s astonishing and rare and deeply moving, and that applies to the production as a whole too. This critic is already cherishing the memory of it.
More: Time Out's telepathic interview with Emily Barclay, Toby Schmitz and Simon Stone