Director Ian Rickson brings Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party to the stage, with a gaze that penetrates below the skin. First staged in 1957, Pinter’s play was met with a dismally stale response; 60 years on, we have learnt to digest the absurd psychological realism of Pinter’s genius. Rickson rigidly commits the play to its era: what was post-war bleakness back then, now feels like nostalgia. This sense of the past infects every corner of the play, right down to Meg’s wondrously retro box of cornflakes.
The Quay Brothers’ set design adheres to the onstage action. The peeling wallpaper reflects the crumbling identities, whilst the tediously organised room presents us with a superficial stillness begging to be disrupted. The sense of routine is established through Meg’s repetitious banality, flawlessly played by Zoë Wannamaker who brings Pinter’s intangibly sculpted character a creeping suggestion of dementia. She also brings out the Freudian undertones through her mother-cum-lover relationship with Stanley.
Toby Jones seizes the role of Stanley by the throat. Departing from the sometimes passively victimised characterisation of Stanley, Jones is rebelliously on the offensive from the off. Calmly seated, he sits with his back to the audience for a notable portion of his sapping descent into madness, exposing the audience to the visceral abuse hurtled forth by McCann and Goldberg. In a dizzying eruption of distorted humanity, he eventually cracks, becoming putty in their hands. This masculine power struggle festers in the unsavoury nature of Goldberg, played with hyper masculinity by Stephen Mangan. His artificial diction and constructed enthusiasm resembles a programmed automaton, perhaps an embodiment of ruthless capitalist power structures. Lulu seems to exist only to be preyed on by Goldberg, but Pearl Mackie reclaims her with sass and vigour.
The rhythms of the play are guided by Simon Baker’s eerie soundscape and the unravelling beat pounded by Jones on his toy drum. Tension ebbs and flows, culminating with the disturbing frenzy induced by a blackout, which we almost believe to be the end of the play. Words for Pinter are weapons; his verbal witticism and piercing assaults permeate the air like the smell of Jones’ cigarettes.
Although the play largely adheres to the Aristotelian unites of time, place and action, it joyfully disobeys every other theatrical expectation, leaving a hollow audience to walk out bemused and teeming with unsolvable questions. Its elusiveness is deeply troubling, yet strangely blissful, as the cast wilfully defy any attempt to be explained away.
The Birthday Party is playing at The Harold Pinter Theatre until 14 April 2018
Photo: Johan Persson