'Strange Interlude': Careful with that aside, Eugene O'Neill. It might be funnier than you expected

Plus: How life became art during the protests in Turkey and a detail about new vampire movie Byzantium for the audience to stick their teeth into

Share
Related Topics

I found myself wondering the other day whether the theatrical aside is an essentially comic device. The occasion was the first night of Simon Godwin's new production of Strange Interlude at the National Theatre (pictured), a positive fiesta of theatrical asides. On the evidence of that evening alone, there wouldn't have been much doubt about the answer. The theatrical aside, you would have concluded, is irresistibly comic in its nature, a rug-pulling bit of verbal slapstick which had the audience in stitches. This might have come as a surprise to Eugene O'Neill, who I don't imagine ever expected his socially daring drama to be hailed as "the laff-riot of 1928" when it was first produced on Broadway. But it seemed intentional in London. And the mechanism of the comedy involved isn't very complicated when you think about it. Someone says something in the imaginary public space of the drama – something bland or grand. And then they immediately contradict it in the real public space of the theatre.

The contradiction alone is funny, in its exposure of the contrast between how we like to appear and how we are. Think of the subtitle scene in Annie Hall, where Woody Allen's laboriously intellectual remarks conceal the fact that he's wondering what Annie would look like naked. But in the theatre there's something more, a friction between two overlapping spaces. No one expects the characters on screen to be aware of the subtitles that appear in front of them. But the convention of the aside is trickier, involving as it does the raw material of theatre itself. Can't they hear what she's just said, we think, however sophisticated we are about the conventions of heard and unheard speech. And that makes the contradiction even funnier. It happens with quite dark and serious asides, too. Think of Iago in Othello, sharing with us the real nature of his thoughts – and how that can stir a nervous laughter in an audience, simultaneously appalled and delighted that they're in the know about the thing.

One thing that Strange Interlude did underline is that when the aside is what you might call a direct aside – aimed squarely into the auditorium – the effect is much funnier than if it's the rendition of a private inner thought. Godwin's decision to have all his characters speak their inner thoughts directly at us, as if aware of our presence and our response, also accentuated the comedy. If you're being talked at, after all, it is only polite to give some indication that you're listening. So when a character gives an anguished yelp at the cosiness of his family nickname (a kind of running gag in the play), we chuckle to show we recognise his exasperation. Had he muttered the same lines inwardly, their bleakness could be observed in silence. Even if you wished to preserve anguish in a direct aside, you might be hard-pressed. What noise would you make to acknowledge pain? It's too awkward. It's easier to giggle.

The word "aside" itself is a kind of clue to how these things should work, I think. Who is it aside from? The other characters on stage, surely. But if that's true, it seems to sideline the audience. Aren't we meant to be central to the occasion, even if we're central in an unacknowledged space? "Aside" tells you that these remarks are best directed into some third space in the auditorium, an anomalous place which swallows the sound from those on stage but allows us to overhear. And, unless you want the audience to laugh, it's probably best to avoid any sense that the characters uttering the aside are aware they're being overheard.

Then again, it may be that it's Strange Interlude that is irretrievably comic, rather than asides themselves – an experiment that was worth trying once as a means of getting closer to the tragedy of life, but which is of most interest now because of the categorical nature of the results that came back.

The riot where life became art

The word "iconic" is so overused it's best to avoid it altogether. But I'd almost make an exception for that photograph of a Turkish protestor in a red dress being pepper-sprayed. Everything worked to transform a momentary incident into an emblem of the cause: the dynamism of both poses – the policeman semi-crouched as he sprays, the victim turning away in shock; the fact that her dress echoes the colours of the Turkish flag, while the black of his uniform is the home colour of state oppression; the fact that the assault is drawn in the air by that plume of off-white gas. It's not life. It's a poster.

Here's one to get your teeth into...

I don't much care for vampire movies, but I liked Neil Jordan's Byzantium, partly for its studiously grotty settings, but also because Saoirse Ronan makes a compellingly anaemic member of the undead. As always, though, I got snagged in the technicalities. Here's one I just can't work out. Ronan plays the teenage daughter of Gemma Arterton, the two of them trapped by their condition in a perpetual hell of sulky mutual resentment. But how did Ronan's character get to be teenage? If she was born a vampire baby and vampires never age, wouldn't Arterton still be carrying her round in a baby-sling? Oh, and how exactly do you wean a vampire?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Our representatives must represent us

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
MP David Lammy would become the capital’s first black mayor if he won the 2016 Mayoral election  

Crime, punishment and morals: we’re entering a maze with no clear exit

Simon Kelner
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot