Harold Pinter does strange things with words.
It’s not just the obligatory Pinteresque pause that everyone mentions. He takes them from their normal surroundings and imbues them with a sense of tension which, in his best work, is never resolved. It simply hangs.
A few days ago, I caught the production of his “The Birthday Party” at the Lyric theatre, Hammersmith, London (just down the road from the place I live, which is handy).
I first read the The Birthday Party a long time ago. This was in the early 1980s. I’d started reading Beckett and Brecht and then I stumbled on Pinter. In the town I grew up in, you didn’t get productions of Pinter, Beckett or ANYTHING. It was like living in a cultural vacuum. So if you were young and precocious, you read play scripts and tried to visualise what it would be like. I visualise better than most. I learned earlier. It was about putting a little colour into life – you get so sick of black and white.
So I read everything that Pinter had written that I could lay my hands on. The Homecoming, The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Dumb Waiter, Betrayal, A Kind of Alaska (maybe that was later, it seems that way), Old Times, No Man’s Land were some of the plays I remember reading back then and always in his best plays it was the tension and the transitions that he captured that got me and kept me reading. There was also a screenplay for “A la recherche du temps perdu” by Proust which I loved and admired greatly.
There are many writers whose best work is in the past and, for myself, I regard Pinter in that way. I can’t admire his politics and his recent public pronouncements just simply needed a certain degree of proportion and that is what a writer should have. I think Pinter has lost some of that measure that he had when he was a younger man.
So it was good to see one of his old plays. “The Birthday Party” is, if anything, perhaps a little too early. He is still learning the craft that fired that tension that interested me, at this point. The third act largely exorcises that malevolence that he has spent two acts creating. It resolves some of the issues and if Pinter has a strength it is that he taught the theatre that things don’t have to be resolved.
In The Birthday Party, Meg and Petey, a married couple, live with their guest, Stanley Webber. Nothing much changes in their lives. Lulu, apparently a neighbour, flirts with Stanley but nothing much goes on beyond the routine of daily meals, newspapers, a time for bed and a time to rise. All this changes when Meg is told that two visitors are coming. It is then that all of life’s possibilities break out and things begin to fall apart.
The words are clever and even some times funny. It is the characters’ response to simple words and simple encounters that places them on the rack and stretches them and allows their potentialities to burst open.
Stanley (advancing): They are coming today.
Stanley: They are coming in a van.
Stanley: And do you know what they’ve got in that van?
Stanley: They’ve got a wheelbarrow in that van.
Meg (breathlessly): They haven’t.
Stanley: Oh yes, they have.
Meg: You’re a liar
“The Birthday Party” teaches us that those who are fully awake are changed by encounters. Those who prefer not to change (like Petey in the play) can remain that way but only by sleepwalking through life’s experiences.
The play is loaded with possibilities. The fact that McCann and Goldberg (two visitors at what is apparently <perhaps> a coastal boarding house are Irish and Jewish respectively loads their mission <should it exist> with all manner of possibilities – religious, political, cultural. All we know is that this is the twentieth century and their purpose, should they have one, could be sinister. We’re not sure how much of what happens is real or if any of it is dream. The import is not in the action but in the words – what is said and what is not said and how the characters and the audience react to what they hear and what they are not told.
The current production is at a close now. For the record, Nicholas Woodeson and Lloyd Hutchinson as McCann and Goldberg were excellent with the right air of purpose but with so much hidden. Sian Brooke as Lulu had just a little too much class and was a little too pretty (if you’re going to come up short, it’s not a bad way to do it). Sheila Hancock as Meg was a little too aware of herself and the play and her costume in the first act was just a little too stereotyped. She played for laughs sometimes that the play did not need.
Meg’s character is potentially the most mysterious of all in a strange way, if handled well. On the face of it she is almost moronic and easily satisfied. Simple. But she has many layers. She wants to be sexually alluring to the guests (even Stanley). She wants social standing – her dwelling is “on the list” she insists, her guests found her to be the belle of the ball. She wants to mother Stanley. His birthday present from her is a child’s drum. She is made more distraught by its brokenness than by anything else. Petey assures it that it can be easily replaced but then he also assures her that Stanley is still upstairs at the conclusion of the play. Is he or is Stanley broken too? She wants the danger but not the threat of change but most of all she wants things just to stay the same.
It is a thought-provoking play. I’m glad to be still thinking about it.