December 7, 2013
An indiscreet window into Joycean interiors
From the outside looking in: British play garners praise at FIBAThe UK had a splendid participation at the Festival Internacional de Buenos Aires (FIBA). Interiors, Scottish company Vanishing Point’s award-winning, internationally-acclaimed play directed by Matthew Lenton, was presented last weekend in a packed Teatro Regio. It was inspired by Maurice Maeterlinck’s early symbolist play Interior, in which a visitor interrupts a family gathering with news of a daughter’s death.
In Vanishing Point’s production, behind a big window, in a cozy warmly-lit dining room, a group of friends gather for a traditional meal, that Peter, the oldest of them, holds every year. It is the longest and coldest night of the year. So the interiors reference shelter and protection, besides the possibility of sharing a good moment with dear friends, as well as making the acquaintance of new ones.
But all the conversation held at that table remains unknown to the viewers. Because what is said behind that window is never heard. The glass works as an isolation material and the only sounds that reach the audience are the songs played on the home stereo (characters also sing and play the piano but that is not heard either). So the only way of understanding or guessing what happens inside is by paying attention to the subtle and expressive gestures of the excellent cast. It goes without saying that Interiors is a very visual play, sharpening the most important sense for theatrical art: the sight. Indeed, that “indiscreet window” duplicates the usual window discovered each time any stage curtain opens.
But there is another source of information: as soon as the play begins, a female hypnotic voice-off begins to give her version of what is taking place in that dining-room, through delicate and poetic observations but also ironic comments that make the audience laugh. She seems to be one of the usual guests (there is even a chair which remains empty), but she never arrives to dinner. Nevertheless, she appears to know (or strongly perceive) what they are talking about; moreover, she reveals their very thoughts, she seems to be inside their minds.
Interiors has a very marked Joycean atmosphere, especially the ambience that readers can find in James Joyce’s series of short stories Dubliners, and more specifically in The Dead (1907), also about a traditional gathering of people over a meal. Both include the opposition between a cozy interior and an inhospitable exterior; both take place during a harsh winter.
But there are two deeper similarities. The first: in both cases, transcendent truths lie under the veil of banality; in Interiors, jokes, laughter, flirting or light dancing (there is an extraordinarily joyful choreography of Video killed the radio star) are, sooner or later, the counterpoint of sad or nostalgic feelings (more or less) exposed by the characters. In the play, what remains “unsaid” — something that was also very relevant for Joyce — is clearly taken as far as possible (words conceal deeper feelings and sometimes produce, paradoxically, a lack of communication). But Interiors is not pretentious; it gets more profound, however simple it may seem. The second similarity with Joyce’s The Dead: the snow as a complete image, unifying the whole universe, blurring the borders between those who have left this world and those who are still living here. In Joyce’s short story, the main character imagines the snow falling all over Ireland, on the plains, on the hills, on the waves and on a small cemetery. He hears “the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
Towards the end of Interiors the audience can finally see where that voice-off came from. A mysterious woman dressed in bluish white, a sort of personified silver moon appears on stage and stands outside the house; she does not seem to feel the cold. The voice that seemed immaterial suddenly possesses bodily form (something almost compulsory in theatre, bearing in mind that it essentially relies on performances by real people). But that body is in fact a ghost; none of the characters will be able to see her through the window, as they don’t seem to see the audience either. Interiors wavers between physicality and immateriality, dealing with the very basis of theatre art and playing with all the possibilities of voice and narration, which serves to remind viewers of films such as Sunset Boulevard.
That woman works as a bridge between the evanescent characters in their fictional hyper-realistic dining-room and the real viewers, who are located where the imaginary outside snowy space would be. A bridge that reminds us we are all part of the same fleeting existence, full of wonderful and terrible moments (a topic also present in the quoted Maeterlinck play used as inspirational source). By the end, the enigmatic woman predicts how and when each of the characters will die, another similarity to Joyce’s The Dead: “One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”