Every so often, perhaps once in a generation, an actor can seem to have been born to play a role. Sir Laurence Olivier as Richard III, for instance. In The Hothouse, on now at Trafalgar Studios, the opposite is true: the role of Roote was born for theatre royalty Simon Russell Beale to play, despite Russell Beale arriving on this earth three years after The Hothouse.
Simon Russell Beale is quite frankly superb. The sweat dripping off his bright pink brow while he frantically paces the performance space with wide-eyed panic and desperation – often with a Christmas hat perched perilously upon his crown, or wide-framed glasses clutched manically in fist – is testament to the work he puts in, even managing to get a laugh as he plucks out the word “rapist” from his quivering lips.
Despite being first performed in 1980, Harold Pinter penned The Hothouse in 1958, arriving at roughly the same time, and sharing roughly the same themes, as Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. The ‘hothouse’ itself appears to be some form of correction centre, an institution placed somewhere between prison and hospital where inmates are impregnated or murdered, and where an unnerving collection of wires and paraphernalia is used to enter people’s minds and ‘improve’ them, for the benefit of wider society. There are no names, just numbers, and even the staff are known by their cold and flavourless monosyllabic surnames: Roote, Gibbs and Cutts. This is complemented by the excellent set: a vacuum without soul or joy with washed-out greens and chipped tiling, whilst an ‘Exit’ sign looms ominously in the corner, rich in Jean-Paul Sartre-esque symbolism.
Whilst some of Pinter’s work may be a little methodical at times, there is not a sentence, a pause, a movement or a facial expression in The Hothouse which doesn’t work to pull the plot along, driving the action forward. The political undercurrent, whilst still strikingly obvious, is thoughtful rather than overwhelming and is often morbidly witty, none more so than when Gibbs (played with calculating menace throughout by John Simm) and Cutts exchange Christmas felicitations and compliments of the season before carrying out an obviously painful psychological experiment on young staffer Lamb (Harry Melling, now all grown up from his Dudley Dursley days in the Harry Potter series). The satire is biting and playful, yet always potentially darker than it may first seem; the way the production flips so effortlessly between high farce and dark (often murderous) tension unsettles the audience enough to ensure full concentration at all times.
The Hothouse may well be a vehicle for Russell Beale and Simm, but their performances are no doubt completed by the excellence on display by all members of the company. John Heffernan clearly enjoys his camped-up performance as the aptly named Lush, a man whose personal brilliance is believed only by himself, and although we sadly don’t see much of Clive Rowe – a true gem of London theatre in my opinion – his charisma and warmth even manage to momentarily breathe life into the deliberately dour set. Indira Varma’s highly sexualised Miss Cutts springs about with an energy much appreciated in an otherwise all-male production.
The ‘war on terror’ and the deconstruction of suspects’ identities has fuelled a new breed of writers and plays, seen right now for instance at the Soho Theatre with its production of Glory Dazed. Yet the current political context also works to provide a sharper resonance and new relevance for plays that have gone before. The Hothouse is a play of such faultless quality that it slots into any time and space, and still finds interesting things to say. It also stars the British stage’s greatest professional. Put simply, it has to be seen.
The Hothouse is on at Trafalgar Studios until 3 August. For more information and tickets, see the Hot House West End website.