A pub setting creates great intimacy in The Birthday Party, writes Dominic Maxwell-Lewis
In the wake of Harold Pinter’s recent death there has, unsurprisingly, been a resurgence of his works throughout the country and a respectful hush of admiration at the mention of his name; playwrights and critics the world over adopting a demeanour not dissimilar to Uriah Heap when discussing his works. The recent production of The Birthday Party by the Viventi theatre group at The Butterfly and The Pig pub seemed to be a welcome addition to the steady stream of retrospective performances.
The setting is both a blessing and a curse. The subterranean pub on Bath Street that served as a venue allowed for an intimacy that would have been more difficult to achieve in a conventional theatre space, yet the occasional daytime customers using the pub for its primary function did serve as a distraction and a hindrance to the performance.
The atmosphere of the play was sufficiently claustrophobic, with great care taken to display the wearisome routine within the guesthouse, which is executed with a mechanical precision by Meg, the proprietor’s wife. The staging, put up minutes before the start of the play, gave a real sense of a living area with a kitchen unit snaking round the back of the audience, allowing for characters to travel back and forth through the audience. From the outset this created a tremendous naturalism that gave the play cohesion and a flow that was most impressive.
The introduction of Stanley, the lumbering tenant, is the first moment where Pinter’s trademark feeling of a leering aggression is felt. The fine line between friendly discourse and combative argument was handled very well; an obvious change in dynamic between the two could have ruined much of the play given its reliance on the unsaid and the menace of ‘what if?’ However, the arrival of the two visitors that is central to the play’s denouement seemed unfortunately two-dimensional.
Too much emphasis put on climactic moments of dialogue exposed a reliance on the printed text, and a lack of real interpretation let the performance down. The sophistic attack on Stanley at the end of the play that has an ability to unnerve the audience to an uncomfortable point instead seemed clumsy and sedate. This was a shame, given the care taken to build up this moment throughout the play steadily was apparent and commendable.
The Birthday Party sets out to make one of Pinter’s pet points, that beneath the veneer of a structured and seemingly civilized routine of speech and according behaviour there lurks an untamed character, unwilling to comply. Viventi’s production is clear in its portrayal of the darker parts of social contretemps and, moreoever, is an encouragingly promising inaugural production with impressive performances.
The Birthday Party will be at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, August 24-29, at The Jury’s Inn