Strange Interlude rehearsals continue. We entered rehearsals with a carefully edited script, but it has kept on changing and evolving. There were times when we would stop, in the middle of rehearsing a scene, and put some dialogue back in. I know the play pretty much by heart at this point, and I could see that there were moments when the rhythm needed to be massaged, or the logic worked out.
Every line of subtext is spoken, exposing the beats in the characters’ thought processes, and I had cut some of those, thinking not everything needs to be made clear, but it is such a delicate issue. If the thoughts are clearer moving through the line, you can follow them with more ease than if you have to make a huge leap in logic or thinking, and the subsequent spoken material follows that logic.
On the other hand, there are moments where it is more effective to make the language more opaque. O’Neill is a genius, but I feel he sometimes gets ahead of his audience. He is intent on digging up all these repressed urges in his characters and explicating them in all of their psychological detail, which works fine in a novelistic sense. But in the theatre there are the demands of drama. Suspense and dramatic irony are important in a way they aren’t on the page.
There are some things which, as a director, I prefer to keep buried so they can be discovered later. The character of Sam is introduced in the second scene and right away he has a line about Nina, “I hope she’ll marry me” – we haven’t even met the character fully, but O’Neill is giving away his part in the whole scheme. Why not pull back so his proposal is a surprise?
In any event, it has been careful and rewarding work. Now we finally have a text, and we can investigate what O’Neill was so fascinated with: the way these characters think and the life of the unconscious, which he saw as “the mother of all gods and heroes.”
I always enjoy sitting around the table and talking about the play but it’s during the second and third weeks, when the actors are on their feet, that the true exploration begins. This is week three, and we have been working very carefully on the specifics, on intentions and character.
For instance, we were working on the second scene today. A year has gone by between the first and second scenes, and a lot can happen to a person in a year. When we see these characters, the year has to have done something to them.
For instance, the character of Charles Marsden. He’s a strange character – a celibate, a mama’s boy, very sensitive but very passive. He’s a reflective character, attentive to surfaces and social behaviors, but he’s not as in touch with his own depths. Marsden’s surface and emotional life, his text and subtext, in a sense, are very different things, and difficult to play. Robert Stanton, the actor playing Marsden, feels that there is a lot of anger in him, which is true, but he doesn’t reveal that anger for a while yet in the play. Or, more interestingly, he’s not able to know how angry he really is until later, even though we’re watching and seeing all of his inner turmoil.
And Nina is in a very difficult emotional state when the second scene begins. She’s descended into a kind of sexual hysteria. Her fiancée Gordon has died, and to replace him she’s behaving like Florence Nightingale unleashed – she’s slept with all of these wounded veterans from World War I. It is a fantastic scene, intensely emotional, but a delicate and complex one for an actress. Francesca Faridany, our Nina, has been working very hard, and it’s very exciting to see her go to this place. That second scene today was just wonderful.
I prefer actors to rehearse basically full-out, without pushing, of course. There are actors who are uncomfortable to rehearse a choice until they’ve totally worked it all out, but I prefer actors who are willing to dare, to stretch their apparatus in rehearsal. And if it’s not right or if it’s fake, we work on it. We will do a section and then go back over it until it’s right. I won’t move on until I feel like the beats are covered, until the scene is in the room with you. If the actors know what they are doing, if they are open to playing with each other, then the inspiration will come. It’s one step at a time. Beat to beat. This is how I worked on Pinter’s Old Times last season and also how I work on a Shakespeare play.
The style of this play – what the style demands of you – is different. The action seems to stop with the asides, but if you play them as a true stream of consciousness, the action is incredibly complex. How do you stage the stream of consciousness? As the actors get more comfortable, they are bringing a lot of ingenuity to it. The great playwright always makes demands on his actors – in Shakespeare, it’s verse, in Old Times, it’s Pinter’s use of silence and pauses – in this, it’s everything. You have to believe in the characters as people. I didn’t approach Hedda Gabler as an old-fashioned play, and I’m not approaching this as one.
I think there are similarities between this play and Hedda Gabler, to Hedda’s drive to find some meaning for her life. Hedda has terminal boredom. I remember when I directed it here at the Shakespeare Theatre Company with Judith Light, I read Alberto Moravia’s novel, Boredom (La Noia), much as I have been reading Proust for Strange Interlude. In Italian, “la noia” means boredom, but it also means “the empty canvas.” His heroes are locked within a state of mind, and nothing in the modern world – not money, not sex – can alleviate it. It was the cornerstone of the character. In Strange Interlude, Nina is very much not bored, but there’s a similar void in her life. Every experience she has, everything she tries in the play, is an attempt to fill that void.
Strange Interlude is quite a play. If we can make it true and rich with emotion and clear then I think the play will have its place where it belongs. I’m having a good time. I keep on thinking about how lucky I am. I’ve always wanted to do this play, and now here we are.
Until next week,