Tag Archives: Harold Pinter

The Birthday Party – Harold Pinter Theatre

The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter Theatre

High-profile productions of Pinter plays with an all-star cast have been a regular feature of the West End in the past few years. Jamie Lloyd gave interpretations of Pinter a shake-up with his stylised version of The Homecoming starring John Simm and Gemma Chan in 2015, and since then a hugely acclaimed version of No Man’s Land united Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in late 2016. Now, one of Pinter’s early controversial full-length plays, The Birthday Party has arrived at the theatre named after one of the twentieth-century’s most influential playwrights.

Yet, Pinter is not the easiest experience for an audience with his focus on abstract meanings and heightened realism that for the uninitiated can mean his work seems impenetrable. But, his plays last because they manage to do something still fairly unique in modern theatre, and while plot and character exist to an extent, Pinter eschews traditional ideas about narrative and instead wants to create a particular impression or feeling – predominantly a sense of sinister unease – that pervades his best work, with a sparse style that continues to draw actors and audiences alike.

The Birthday Party is set in a seaside boarding house run by Meg and Petey Boles (also a deckchair attendant), whose long-term lodger Stanley is their only guest. Claiming to be a pianist with offers to tour the world, Stanley’s place in the house is unclear, but happily settled. That is until strangers Goldberg and McCann arrive for one night, intruding on the birthday celebration Meg has innocently planned. But it’s not really Stanley’s birthday and suddenly his whole existence comes into question; just who is Stanley and what is he really doing in this quiet little town?

Ian Rickson’s assured and compelling new production positions Pinter’s work in a form of shabby realism, a dark little room from which the characters find it difficult to escape. Designed by the Quay Brothers, the Boles boarding house is an abyss in a world of sunshine, filled with dark wood and muted autumnal colours that belie the beautiful summer’s day referenced outside. And, interestingly, although all of the characters except Stanley commute into this warmer world or, through the occasional opening of doors and windows, try to draw the external freshness in with them, they only really exist in this drab chamber, as if permanently yoked to it, unable to escape to the better existence they crave beyond the walls.

As ever with Pinter the blurring of fantasy and reality is a common theme, and Rickson’s production is quite subtle in relaying the contrast between the two. Everything is played with deliberate realism to match the detailed everyday approach to the set and costumes, so the onus is placed on the audience to recognise the moments when characters contradict themselves and to judge what parts of the conversation are a dream or a lie. For example, at several points, we’re given similar bits of information about Stanley’s professional life and during each new conversation the extent of his achievement is scaled down forcing us to question which version is the truth. Rickson, underscores this with a sense of unease because we cannot be sure if Stanley consciously lies to the other characters or to himself, adding a valuable sense of instability to an already unpredictable play.

Pinter also likes to explore the consequences of forcing strangers into established worlds to consider the fragility of human structures and relationships. He does this in The Homecoming as Teddy brings his new wife Ruth into the family home, upsetting the routines and the very male balance that exists there. This also happens in No Man’s Land as Foster is upset when his master brings the garrulous Spooner into the house for a late-night drink that similarly alters their path. Here in The Birthday Party, Meg, Petey and Stanley have developed a similar form of domestic bliss that seems to suit them and although we’re not quite clear how innocent the arrangement is, it is clearly an established and comfortable one.

The arrival of Goldberg and McCann is well managed, and instantly distorts the calm and cosy atmosphere that existed before. The audience feels the shift as fussing about cornflakes and the local paper quickly gives way to more intense debates about identity and self-delusion, prompted by the arrival of these two sinister strangers. Importantly, throughout the remainder of the play, they feel like an alien presence, characters who don’t quite belong in this time and place, put there purposefully by Pinter to create a rupture between what has gone before and what is to come. So, while the play’s language is typically opaque, the overriding feeling of this production gives strong signals to the audience about what is happening which keeps you gripped.

Toby Jones is a fairly rare sight on the London stage these days but his ability to play quite diverse types serves him well as the shambolic and uncertain Stanley. With a raft of acclaimed roles in TV and film from projects as broad-ranging as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Witness for the Prosecution, The Detectorists and a First World War soldier in the excellent forthcoming adaptation of Journey’s End, Jones brings a complex and slightly shifty tone to the central role.

Initially, he strikes quite a sad and lonely figure, half dressed in pyjamas and oppressed by the poor-quality breakfast supplied by Meg. But very soon, Jones reveals an undercurrent of something darker as the morality of his relationship with Mrs Boles is called into question hinting at something more than perhaps her husband knows, which, later in the production evolves into something suggesting complicity between them – a peculiar ménage à trois in which Petey is equally content with the ‘arrangement’.

With the announcement of strangers arriving, Jones’s Stanley becomes rapidly agitated, as if unexpectedly caught out, eventually receding into watchful silence and a traumatic emotional turmoil as the party itself gets underway. It’s a skilled performance that offers layers of meaning and interpretation that never quite allows Stanley’s rather slippery identity to be pinned down, leaving you wondering whether he’s genuinely maligned or whether some dark deeds from another time have finally caught up with him.

As Meg Boles, Zoe Wannamaker has rarely been better, creating a slightly empty-headed domestically satisfied working-class woman who dreams of being the centre of attention without ever realising that she is actually the pivotal point in the household. Meg would be a frustrating woman to know, always stating the obvious, asking her husband to his face if he is there, and wanting to hear the news as he reads the paper.

Her relationship with Stanley is rather dubious, and Wannamaker ensures it never quite settles on the motherly or the romantic bringing that constant sense of unease or hint of inappropriateness to a seemingly innocent domestic world. The party itself gives her a chance to let loose some of the girlish glamour and enjoyment of male attention that are usually held in check beneath her pinny, but Wannamaker retains a sense of Meg’s innocence throughout, as if she’s in the world but not part of it, and cannot really see what’s happening under her own roof.

Stephan Mangan’s Goldberg and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s McCann are a menacing double act that almost fully realises Pinter’s intentions for them as the catalyst for break-down and change, while at the same time making them distinctive individuals. Vaughan-Lawlor is particularly good at delivering much of the implied violence of the piece, and for much of the time he is the embodiment of physical threat. Simultaneously however, Vaughan-Lawlor brings shades of anxiety to the role of the former priest-turned-hard-man, using a latent nervous energy he reveals only to Goldberg and a peculiar need to tear newspapers into strips that seems to calm him.

Goldberg, by contrast, is the established crime boss who talks endlessly about family and respect for his heritage. He too has identity issues, referred to by several first names during the play, and there’s something of the Krays in the way he talks about protecting community. As a well-known comic actor, Mangan takes a more humorous approach to the interpretation of Goldberg and earns many of the evenings laughs with his well-timed delivery and judicious use of the infamous Pinter pause. There is room for a little more darkness in the portrayal however and at present this character seems to contrast most with the straighter interpretations of the other actors. Arguably, Goldberg is only incidentally funny and in fact means to be threatening, which is something Mangan has time to explore as the run continues.

There is a well-conceived small role for Pearl Mackie as neighbour Lulu whose purpose is to add an overtly sexual dimension  to the male / female interactions with her instant attraction to the much-older Goldberg. Played almost entirely as a fantasy figure, Lulu is there to cast light on the parallel bond with Stanley and Meg, and Mackie does well to match her accent to Wannamaker’s to give a nice consistency. Peter Wright, as the mostly silent Petey, must feel quite at home in this theatre having spent several recent months here in the West End transfer of Robert Icke’s Hamlet, and here he is an interestingly passive presence, a man who mostly abandons his home and allows events to occur unchallenged.

Setting this in the realistically depicted and familiar world of the seaside boarding house only adds to its distorting effect, and leaves the audience decidedly unsettled. Pinter is a difficult playwright to love and it has taken many attempts to start to understand why his work endures, but this exciting version of The Birthday Party makes Pinter’s appeal all the clearer – plot and character are only partly the point, it’s about the feeling it creates as you watch it. With press night still a few days away, Rickson’s production is already a tense and unnerving experience that utilises all the skills of its excellent cast to reinforce the oddity of one of Pinter’s most performed plays.

The Birthday Party is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 14 April and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.     

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No Man’s Land – Wyndhams Theatre

ian-mckellen-and-patrick-stewart-in-no-mans-land

Previously published by The Reviews Hub

‘I have never been loved, from this I draw my strength’; Pinter’s version of no man’s land exists in a strange purgatorial world, somewhere between love and complete solitude, between past and future, between reality and dreams. The four men, in what is probably his least straightforwardly comprehensible play, speak of the outside world, of experiences they’ve had or the life they currently live, but they are trapped in a room together which they will never escape, they are in a limbo state, they are in no man’s land.

Hirst, a man of letters, meets the chancer Spooner in a pub in north London and invites him back to his lonely home on Hampstead Heath to continue drinking where they are eventually joined by Hirst’s younger companions and employees. Over the course of that night and the following morning the men exchange numerous anecdotes in a cat-and-mouse game as memories and fiction blurs their conversation.

Pinter is not the easiest playwright to get to grips with and the absurdist nature of No Man’s Land is probably the least accessible. Yet, Sean Mathias’s production brings a deep understanding of Pinter’s rhythm, so while much of the dialogue is exchanges of nonsense, Pinter’s themes of varying sources of control, disconcerting connections to the past and the effect of an interloper on an established environment come across particularly strongly. Watching the power shift around the room as different groups of characters come together and are exposed is one of the high points of this interpretation.

It is a production that is never less than compelling which is entirely due to its four performers whose interaction gives flight to Pinter’s bizarre tale. It is demanding for an audience because the dialogue is deliberately unnatural with long unbroken monologues that demand an interruption from another character that never comes. These are not Shakespearean soliloquies that deliberately unburden the speaker’s emotions or troubles, but odd rambling stories that may not even be true, giving little insight or empathy. Yet the fascination lays in watching them unfold and the momentary belief that Spooner or Hirst invests in them before they flitter away as easily as memories. In the hands of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart they become a form of theatre gold.

McKellen, sartorially channelling David Tennant’s Dr Who in pinstriped suit and plimsolls, perfectly suits the verbosity and poetic tone of Spooner, a man who creeps gently around the room, refilling his glass and inveigling his way into the household. As you would expected, McKellen enjoys playing with the language and wringing every ounce of meaning from the lines, yet there is an obvious shrinking and wariness when confronted by the more masculine Foster and Briggs, as if afraid of being seen through or found out. In McKellen’s performance, Spooner’s version of no man’s land is being an outsider, never loved, wanted or welcomed, which leads him to a desperation that McKellen exploits well.

Patrick Stewart’s Hirst is the perfect contrast and for a long-time hardly speaks as his companion waffles on. This Hirst is initially more reserved and made morose by the copious amounts of drink, yet as the night wears on he slowly opens. For the audience, Stewart’s initial restraint is then rewarded with a couple of beautifully haunting scenes reflecting on the past and his obsession with the people in his album, saying “you find me in the last lap of a race I’ve forgotten to run”. Stewart’s Hirst is stuck in his own no man’s land, a past that will never return.

The leads receive very fine support from a whiskered Owen Teale as cook-cum-butler Briggs whose gravelly voice and hard-man image belie a genuinely caring and tender side. His first appearance in full 70s garb is deliberately gangster-like but he gets several of his own monologues in which Teale brilliantly reveals the affection for Foster while, despite his physical presence, easily accepting Stewart’s authority. Briggs’s ambiguously homoerotic relationship with Damian Molony’s younger Foster is nicely pitched, but Molony’s press night nerves meant the youthful freshness this character brings to the play was a little lost in rushed delivery. However, I did see a preview performance as well where Molony was considerably more relaxed and extremely good as the cocky young caretaker.

This production has thought carefully about its design, with Stephen Brimson Lewis’s semi-circular set creating a masculine panelled world that keeps the characters locked in, while the edges of exposed and broken beams reflect its essential rottenness. A large circular mat is slightly out of sync with the concentric circles of the floor which add to the disconcerting feel and reflect the circuity of the dialogue. And while the younger men sport obviously 70s outfits, the elder and the room itself have a timeless quality – itself a reflection of a no man’s land of sorts.

Arguably Mathias’ interpretation is perhaps a little too safe, opting for a very straight, traditional production that while extremely well executed, may not attract such a diverse audience. As someone who has always struggled with Pinter – and being unable to get to grips with a previous version of No Man’s Land with Michael Gambon and David Bradley – it wasn’t until Jamie Lloyd’s vibrant production of The Homecoming at Trafalgar Studios last January, that I really began to see why Pinter’s work has lasted so well. The sheer aggression of it and the bold design didn’t make me love Pinter but I did begin to understand his themes and style.

Now, No Man’s Land is a far more sedate and reflective play than The Homecoming, looking at a different part of life, but it could be a hard sell to a younger audience despite the brilliance of its leads. Ticket prices too may well be a problem and in the queue to collect a £10 preview ticket booked back in March on my first viewing of this, the box office only had premium day seats for £150, which as much as l love the theatre is an insane amount of money to spend, especially on what really is a very difficult work. Delfont Mackintosh do still have much cheaper tickets available, including some standing spaces for £10 but do book in advance rather than risk having to pay so much at the last minute.

So as a number of our leading men take to the stage, Branagh’s The Entertainer and now, Mckellen and Stewart’s No Man’s Land have proven to be unmissable. It may be one of Pinter’s hardest plays but for many it will be the performances they come for which are as fine as you will see this autumn season. And while the meaning of No Man’s Land may remain as obscure as ever, this production gives clarity to Pinter’s reflections on reality, fiction and the places in between.

No Man’s Land is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 17 December. Tickets start at £10 in the balcony or standing, and there will an NT Live cinema screening on 15 December.

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The Homecoming – Trafalgar Studios

Jamie Lloyd Theatre Company, Trafalgar Studios

Home sweet home’, ‘home is where the heart is’, ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’. Home is a place we all like to be; on a cold winter’s day we can’t wait to get in or if we’re abroad for a protracted period of time we long to return. It’s a place of solace, safety, often of family and respite, territorially ours, come what may. In The Homecoming now revived by Jamie Lloyd at the Trafalgar Studios, Pinter plays with these notions of home and family showing us that our origins can be as poisonous as they are restorative, a place where you return not just to the home you once knew but also to yourself and the person you’ve been trying to escape from.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Homecoming so this production celebrates Pinter’s acclaimed play with a star-studded interpretation. And having started the year with the deliciously dark The Ruling Class – with a serenely madcap performance from James McAvoy – Jamie Lloyd productions neatly book-end my theatrical year. But Pinter and I have never really gotten along; I enjoyed Betrayal but couldn’t quite get to grips with No Man’s Land, there’s something about the rhythm of Pinter, with its surreal plot twists and grubby interplay, which just didn’t quite fit with me. Never one to give up entirely, I’m glad I gave this a go – I may not be exactly converted but this is a chilling, sinister and intense production that is a fine birthday tribute to a landmark play.

Teddy returns to his London home with his wife Ruth. Married for 6 years but living in America as a university lecturer, Teddy’s family has never met his wife or even knows of her existence until one night when everyone has gone to bed they turn up unannounced on the doorstep for a flying visit. But this is no ordinary family – Max the patriarch still attempting to rule his home with an iron fist, flits between missing his long-dead wife and despising her; Lenny the middle son is a man of the world, a wheeler dealer with less than savoury connections; Joey is the youngest, a boxer who Max thinks will make it big, and Sam (Max’s brother) is the only one with a defined job as a well-respected and much requested chauffeur. The entrance of Ruth into this utterly male world both unpicks the existing dynamics and fills a void over the course of two days. But Teddy’s neat and elegant wife isn’t all she seems, Ruth has come home too.

As with all of Soutra Gilmore’s work the first thing you’ll notice about this play is the design – with the houselights up it’s a black, sparse but elegant looking 60s home with sideboard and chair. In the centre is the throne, Max’s armchair which denotes his status in the house – 2 seats in the whole room. It all looks stylishly 60s, containing the characters in a red-framed room that recedes back to the pivotal front door. But then the stage lights come on and suddenly it looks much grubbier, well used and soiled – a reflection of the family morality within. It’s a very unsettling male world that contrasts brilliantly with Ruth and Teddy’s American preppy style, lit in crucial moments in blood red or by two naked light bulbs suspended at front and rear like a boxing ring.

It’s a small cast and Pinter gives each a chance to shine. Best among them is Ron Cook as Max (also a veteran of The Ruling Class earlier this year) the curmudgeonly father of the house who is both proud of and appears to detest his sons. An old school working-class man, butcher by trade, who constantly reminisces about the old days while laying down the law to his household. Cook’s performance is spot on, unsympathetic and unwilling. Matching him is John Simm as Lennie giving the creepiest performance of the show. By coincidence the programme notes tell us that when The Homecoming was released, audiences could have alternatively seen Turgenev’s A Month in the Country and Simm has just finished a superb run in that self-same play at the National this summer. Also a veteran of Lloyd productions (The Hothouse), Simm is magnificent here as the outwardly friendly but deadly middle brother. With an accent that verges on a working class Kenneth Williams at his most snide, Simm is a sinister figure often appearing unexpectedly and using a chatty manner to imply considerable threat – creepy and brilliant.

Given that the world Pinter creates here is one that existed alongside the Krays, appropriately Gary Kemp has been cast, successfully against type, as the philosophical brother Teddy and he brings a softness and detachment to the role which seems right for Teddy’s separateness from his family.  Also offering a surprising turn is Keith Allen as Uncle Sam, who takes considerable pride in his legitimate job, often absenting himself from family quarrels, especially when Max and Lennie butt heads. Allen brings a restrained camp to his performance of Sam, who seems to perform most of the domestic chores, which gives the audience plenty to consider in this very male world.                                                           

The role of Ruth, then, is a tricky one as the only woman to have entered this home since the death of Max’s wife. Gemma Chan pitches her really well, initially fearful and detached implying the very different life she and Teddy have led in their middle-class American home, but as the play progresses she begins to stand up to them and ultimately it seems to dominate their thoughts and plans. The hints at Ruth’s past come across well in a knowing performance from Chan, and you’re left with the notion that whatever the family has cooked up, she’s been the one in control all along.

While I can’t say that I’ve come any closer to loving Pinter, the production values made this a fascinating and very worthwhile trip to the theatre – especially the design and direction that is bursting with meaning and the almost gleeful darkness of the performances with Simm in particular seeming to relish his character’s dangerous geniality. So wherever you end up and whoever you think you become, perhaps you can’t ever escape who you really are, eventually all of us have to come home.

The Homecoming is at the Trafalgar Studios until 13 February. Tickets start at £29.50 but Trafalgar Studios runs as £15 Monday initiative on the 2nd – so on 2nd December they will release tickets at £15 for all Mondays in December. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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