When you think of Harold Pinter‘s plays, what comes to mind? The Pinter Pause? Naturally. Dysfunctional relationships? Probably. Brutal dialogue? Maybe. But what about humour? Last night, at the Royal Exchange’s production of The Birthday Party, I was reminded of how funny Pinter could be.
My god, the man knew how to write. Even the simplest of lines elicited a laugh from the audience, helped in no small part by the combined acting talents of the six-strong cast. And, in a play which hinges on menace and fear, this was quite an achievement.
So, The Birthday Party, what’s it all about? Peter Wood, director of the inaugural staging of the play back in 1958, wondered the same thing. But Pinter wasn’t giving anything away. In a letter printed in the Exchange’s programme (and well worth a read), Pinter conceded that although the script was a “very serious piece of work”, it was also a comedy “because the whole state of affairs is absurd and inglorious” – but he refused to be more specific.
“The play is itself,” wrote Pinter. “It is no other. It has its own life (whatever its merit in dramatic terms or accomplishment may be and despite the dissatisfaction others may experience with regard to it). I take it you would like me to insert a clarification or a moral judgement or author’s angle on it, straight from the horse’s mouth. I appreciate your desire for this but I can’t do it.”
Prior to curtain up, I sat beneath the glorious glass canopy of the Royal Exchange and pondered the play ahead. I studied Pinter as a student and have come to love this dramatist, both for his theatre and his prose, as well as his poetry. But some of his work is pretty difficult to grasp at the first encounter. So I read the programme notes in an effort to come to the performance fully prepared. I needn’t have bothered.
Unlike, say, The Homecoming, The Birthday Party is easier to follow. That’s not to say the sinister elements of the narrative are less obvious, or the shifting in one’s seat less likely, it just felt like a more straightforward plot – if plot is the right word to use when discussing Pinter. Afterwards, I regretted doing my homework and so, in that spirit, I won’t divulge any of the finer points here.
But I can say this: four of the six cast members were superb. In a Pinter play, the acting is all; the sparsity of the dialogue demands it. Maggie Steed as Meg rose to this challenge, as did Ed Gaughan in the role of Stanley (whose stooped posture, unkempt appearance and thick-framed glasses meant he bore an uncanny resemblance to Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters), Paul McCleary as Petey and Royal Exchange newcomer Danusia Samal, who played Lulu. The final two of the ensemble – Desmond Barrit (Goldberg) and Keith Dunphy (McCann) – did OK but just weren’t, what’s the right word, ‘scary’ enough.
Bryan Pringle, who played Stanley in Pinter’s own 1964 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, recalls Patrick Magee (an old friend of Pinter’s) as McCann. “He was really menacing. At the opening of Act Two he sits at the table slowly tearing a newspaper. Watching him tear that paper every night scared me to death.” Well, watching Dunphy do the same thing last night was uncomfortable but was it threatening? Not really.
The more I learn about Pinter, the more I wish I had known him. As a reviewer, it’s not the done thing to say as much – circumstances dictate that the art is separate from the artist. But I don’t care. The man was clearly a powerhouse: irascible, uncompromising and difficult, yes, but also ferociously intelligent, loving and affectionate. Anyone in any doubt of this should read his wife’s account of their life together. Must You Go? is a love letter to a lost love, written by the woman who knew Pinter best, Antonia Fraser. I was fortunate enough to see her talking about the book at the Manchester Literature Festival in 2011. Some three years had passed since Pinter’s death but it was clear to all in the room that the grief was as raw as on the day he died.
And so I end this review with what is, for me at least, Pinter’s greatest poem. I print it here because it sums up one of his greatest qualities: the capacity to love. And because the final line of dialogue from The Birthday Party encapsulates that same emotion. You can read the poem here but if you want to know what is said at the play’s conclusion, you’ll have to go to the Royal Exchange and find out for yourself.
It Is Here
What sound was that?
I turn away, into the shaking room.
What was that sound that came in on the dark?
What is this maze of light it leaves us in?
What is this stance we take,
To turn away and then turn back?
What did we hear?
It was the breath we took when we first met.
Listen. It is here.
Article by Helen Nugent
What: The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter
Where: The Royal Exchange, Manchester
When: until July 6, 2013