The Old Vic marks its return to in-person live performances with a brief revival of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, a play that marked the 60th anniversary of its first theatrical run in 2020 with a much interrupted restaging at the Hampstead Theatre where it premiered in 1960. Before that, only two years ago, Danny Dyer and Martin Freeman gave lauded performances as hit-men Ben and Gus in the finale of Jamie Lloyd’s transformative Pinter at the Pinter season and suddenly The Dumb Waiter is very much in fashion with now three productions at major London venues in only a couple of years. But the Old Vic brings something a little different, not only the chance to see a great short play with a fine cast but also the opportunity to be part of a truly hybrid theatre experience.
The In-Camera series and its equivalents in the space of a year have reconceived what audience engagement can look like and while going back to full capacity audiences is highly desirable when it’s safe to do so, as venues have discovered there is a whole world out there keen to engage with UK productions through their laptop or Internet-enabled device. An entirely new business plan has emerged for theatres, one that the Old Vic has grasped by offering a season of plays live streamed from its stage that have become increasingly innovative as the months of multiple lockdowns dragged on.
The technical acceleration of the In-Camera series was remarkable, developing from the side-by-side Zoom boxes of the socially distant simplicity of Lungs adapted from the Old Vic’s original production last September to the multi-camera storytelling of the The Lorax in April which included a large cast, magical scenery, puppets and some extraordinary video graphics layered onto the live feed. In just seven months, the Old Vic had almost revolutionised the way that live theatre experiences could be relayed on film, the turning point of which was Faith Healer, staged with such a compelling intimacy that it shattered the barrier between the performers and their captive screen audience.
The Hybrid Experience
All of this has laid the groundwork for The Dumb Waiter – and Baghdad Cafe the next production in the Old Vic’s reopening season which has also committed to digital performances – by offering audiences the opportunity to see the same play live in the room or streamed to your home. For those at the theatre this is the Old Vic as never before, a ‘studio audience’ seated in all tiers of the auditorium with a view not just of the work on stage but also of the process of creating live hybrid theatre with three cameras and a series of screens dominating the stalls area, around which the seats have been distributed in appropriately distanced groupings, simultaneously right in front of the theatre action and yet behind the scenes of the filmed component – fascinating stuff.
How intrusive this is for the in-person audience depends where you sit, ranging from not at all, to probably only marginally as two of the cameras are operated from either side of the stage with one on a plinth in the middle of the stalls. Now, this is also the first time the Old Vic has filmed a production this way round with the actors facing out into the auditorium in the usual way; all of the In-Camera productions have been back to front, filmed largely from the rear of the stage using the decorated Dress and Lilian Baylis Circles as the symbolic backdrop to the performances so Director Jeremy Herrin has needed to manage a physical and technical reorientation of the stage in order to give the in situ and digital audience an equally worthy view of the action.
So while the view of the stage is barely obscured, the Old Vic maintains a canny connection been its two sets of audiences, not only showing the physical audience in the back of shot and broadcasting real applause to the Zoom viewers but for those in the room, additional small television screens have been placed on either side showing the live stream relay – a decision that becomes extremely useful when Gus briefly goes into an offstage corridor to search for the sender of the note which is only visible onscreen (a trick Ivo van Hove applied in All About Eve).
Herrin also gives us something no audience has seen before, the perspective of the dumb waiter itself, placing a camera lens in the opening that allows us to see Gus in close-up as he receives the mysterious catering orders from upstairs at a time when, by necessity, he has his back to the audience. It’s a shrewd move to give the live audience both experiences at the same time and of notable value for the digital audience to know they are receiving (albeit momentarily) content that can only be seen if you’re watching through a screen. That the experience of the Zoom audience is just as carefully planned and is by no means a secondary or lesser option is essential to the success of hybrid theatre endeavours as well as a positive sign for future co-productions in this venue.
Staging the Play
Returning to the Old Vic is a meaningful experience and like many venues its reopening is worth celebrating. For our still uncertain times, The Dumb Waiter is a good choice; practically, it only requires two actors for a brief 50-minute running time while the story about being trapped in the same room for too long, waiting for something to happen while all kinds of unnerving things occur outside feels ever-timely. And while designer Hyemi Shin creates the necessary hinterland feel with accents that speak to the original period setting, right down to the Ben’s newspaper headlines, Pinter’s play is somehow timeless.
The Dyer and Freeman version played with shifting power dynamics to create a greater sense of confederacy between Ben and his junior partner Gus, but Herrin takes a slightly different approach, retaining a formality of rank between the two men, especially on Ben’s part who is given an inevitable world-weariness that offers a different emotional shape to the unfolding drama. The question of how much Ben really knows about the job they are going to perform is fairly ambiguous in Pinter’s text and while the audience remains in the dark until the play’s final moments, there is a strong implication in Herrin’s production that Ben is already aware of which way the tide is turning.
This lends a tragic inevitability to the unfolding drama which is very useful in singling-out this version of the play. Ben’s awareness makes sense of his brusque manner and refusal to engage with his partner’s delirium. The rising frustration that Ben conveys at the constant interruptions seem deliberately disproportionate and Pinter continues to limit Ben’s dialogue to often small, staccato sentences that are infused with the character’s sense of authority and a conscientious employee mentality.
As the shenanigans with the dumb waiter and speaking tube come to a head, actor David Thewlis gives Ben a long moment of introspection as he sits doubled over in what looks like despair or agony – perhaps knowing what’s to come. Throughout, Ben watches Gus carefully, often abjectly but also as though silently wrestling with something, a terrible knowledge or concern about what lies ahead and Thewlis balances the jobsworth tyranny in Ben’s character with this unstated sense of foreboding that make him defensive and worried.
Daniel Mays’s interpretation of Gus compliments Thewlis’s Ben very well, using the same concepts of worry and inevitability as the basis for his characterisation but allowing them to manifest in Gus as a tendency to panic, to ramble and fret throughout the play. Gus is the more human of the two, an everyman in an extraordinary situation and a creation that Pinter has some fun with. An unlikely assassin, Gus is a man who packs for murder like a trip to the seaside with a prepared lunch, box of tea and even some milk in a holdall and much of Pinter’s extraordinary wordplay is devoted to very routine discussions about heating water for the tea that never comes.
Mays last appearance on stage was also in Pinter at the Old Vic in a production of The Caretaker, and his control of the writing style is effortless. He allows Gus to be annoying and sympathetic, jumpy and entirely reasonable, comic and tragic all at the same time, particularly in the haunting sections about the botched killing of a women the men recently performed which Gus is continually visited by. The eventual explosion of nervous energy is convincing even across such a short lead-in time and there are some great comic moments as Mays mines every line for the conflicting light and shadow that reveal his character’s innocence, guilt, complicity and regret all boiling over in this room.
The connection between Thewlis and Mays is quite different to the versions we’ve seen elsewhere recently, creating an isolation around each of the characters that the other can never entirely breach. By making them begrudging partners, a manager and his junior, there are unmet needs expressed in this production as different types of masculinity, of silent and expressive, intimidating and sensitive contend, the claustrophobic and distorting environment meaning both are discomposed by the mysteries of the dumb waiter.
This is hybrid theatre in action and while it is wonderful to be back in the Old Vic with a live, in-venue audience to share the experience of this play with, the presence of the mini-movie studio cameras and the screen relay also created a tangible connection with the hundreds, maybe thousands, watching elsewhere. We may not have been able to see our fellow digital audience members but we knew they were there, making The Dumb Waiter feel like a communal event, all of us in the dark watching together. Hybrid theatre is creating connections and this is only the beginning.