Interminable intervals: The Aliens at #53 The Bush

How integral should an interval be?

The Aliens

Annie Baker’s new play The Aliens, directed by Peter Gill, is an easy watch – a little too easy. It’s a reasonable night out, but probably not a memorable one. The play runs at an hour and a half and, somewhat surprisingly, has a fifteen minute interval.

For a play which tries very hard to seem cool, it struck me as odd that it should be so keen to pause half way through. I don’t know whether this is something I’ve imagined, but it seems to me that fewer shows are going in for intervals these days. Perhaps it will prove to be a fad, but an interval would seem to be unnecessary unless really required by a show’s length. In Shakespeare plays and other classics we expect an interval – it’s part of the experience. But when the subject matter is considerably less substantial, an interval can be clunky and annoying.

The interval in The Aliens made me wonder whether an over-reliance on a mid-way break is a sign of bad writing. In terms of plot, the interval was key: the scenario in parts one and two is exactly the same, except that one of the three characters, Jasper, is absent. With no substantial emotional change in KJ and Evan (the other two characters) and with the set exactly the same, the interval was the only way to convey a sense of time having passed, a time in which Jasper might conceivably have died. If The Aliens had been written as a through-played piece, Jasper’s dramatic absence would have had very little credibility. As it is, we notice his absence, but we don’t really care.

The Aliens is a short, light piece of theatre, made less emotionally gruelling by the break we’re given in the middle. As a through-played piece, it might make us feel more like we’ve endured something – in a positive sense. Instead, it plays with that unknown quantity, the interval, during which anything can happen. It was a risky writing decision, and one that didn’t pay off.

The Bush Theatre

This was my first and long overdue visit to The Bush. The theatre has something of a cult status and, for a small fringe theatre, is very well-known. It’s attached to an O’Neills, and the theatre itself is very modestly sized. It’s a space that suggests versatility, but the history this theatre has built up would seem to be more attractive than the physical place itself.

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4 Responses to Interminable intervals: The Aliens at #53 The Bush

  1. Rod Dixon says:

    Red Ladder’s new play UGLY runs at 90 mins and we deliberately decided against an interval – people sit through films twice that length. With live theatre you work so hard to bring an audience into a world only to let them out in an interval & then you have to re-immerse them!

    • I agree – you want your audience to commit to watching something, not give them the chance to go away and think about something else for a while right in the middle of things! Very much looking forward to seeing the show.

  2. Corinne says:

    You’re not wrong in imagining that few (new writing) shows have intervals, if every era has its type of play we’re currently in that of the one act play (where 90 minutes – or less – is the key). My own rule is that 90 minutes is the maximum I like without an interval in the theatre and anything with a playing time of 70 minutes or under shouldn’t have one.

    I’d argue though that all plays are written as “through pieces”. We don’t have four intervals in Shakespeare or three in Chekhov so it doesn’t hold that a three act play must have two or a two act play one. A writer might have a desire for an interval, but to interval or not is decided by a combination of the Director and the venue. Some venues are very keen on intervals because it makes them money, whilst where (or if) there’s an interval can very much dictate a Director’s vision (eg. the Doran/ Tennant Hamlet placed the interval break – to my horror – mid-scene). It doesn’t remove all blame from the writer but I’d also lay some blame on a Director if they can’t conjure a way to denote passage of time other than a trip to the bar.

    • True – it seems like an unimaginative decision on all parts. I wonder if there was an artistic motivation behind it in this case that just didn’t pay off, or whether the director was genuinely beaten by the script.

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