THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
By HAROLD PINTER
directed by Raymond Hawthorne
at Musgrove Studio, Maidment Theatre, Auckland
From 9 Mar 2012 to 31 Mar 2012
[2hrs 40mins, incl. 2 intervals]
Reviewed by Nik Smythe, 10 Mar 2012
(potent pause) Productions' latest offering is Pinter's 1958 classic, over half a century old but somehow still as bewilderingly relevant as ever.
John Parker's set design dutifully recreates a cosy fifties coastal English boarding house: wooden dining table by the kitchen area with sliding hatch, window on the rear wall looking onto something resembling tree shadows, sideboard and coat rack stage right by the front door, armchair and lampshade stage left in front on the stairs leading up to the bedrooms. Rich green wallpaper surrounds them on every wall (even the stairs!), beset with various framed artworks, the largest of course being young Queen Elizabeth.
Darien Takle plays Meg Bowles, your quintessential British working class dear-old-thing, maddeningly gregarious and dotty as a currant bun. Her deckchair attendant husband Petey (Kevin Wilson) has a gruff demeanour, but is essentially gentle and long-suffering, in contrast to the more superficially friendly but short-wicked chaps soon to appear.
Actually, Joseph Rye's tortured concert pianist – or is he? - Stanley Webber, the only lodger in the house, is certainly short-wicked, but with very little in the way of pretensions to friendliness. With a nut-cracking jaw and a tightly-wound nervous system, Stan spins on a bottle-cap from grumpy non-morning person to effusive sweet-talker to explosions of bitter rage, and that's only in the first act.
Fern Sutherland's saucy modern young girl-next-door, Lulu, is the fifties equivalent of a chav, flaunting her desirable attributes albeit with a mildly cynical air; until she's had a couple that is.
Rounding off the dramatis personae are Michael Lawrence as the menacingly affable Goldberg, and Jonathan Allen as poker-faced Irish tough, with a curious OCD habit, McCann, in town for the night on business and looking for a room – or is it actually Mr Webber they're really after?
The title refers to Meg deciding its Stan's birthday and buying him a present to celebrate. She takes very little convincing from McCann and Goldberg to throw a party in honour of the special occasion, despite the shell-shocked Stan's defeated protests that it's not his birthday at all. Tensions come to a head with a power failure during a spirited game of blind-man's buff, leading us into the third act with a pervasive, spooky air of mystery...
Auckland's theatre patriarch Raymond Hawthorne directs his accomplished cast over three solidly unstable acts of increasing uncertainty in which the more each character explains themselves, the less sense they make.
One could write pages (indeed, people have), analysing the ambiguities and meanings behind the numerous contradictions and inconsistencies that occur in the course of the The Birthday Party. How has Meg run out of cornflakes in act three, when she'd bought a new packet only the day before? Goldberg's name is allegedly Nat, so why was he called Simon by his late wife, and Billy by his father? Et cetera.
Compared to the plays of Beckett or Ionesco, for instance, Pinter's work has – ostensibly at least – more of a grounding in reality. In a way having this basis that we can relate to more closely than with a more pure example of absurdism, serves to actually increase the sense of twisted eccentricity.
My own personal position on the recent hotly-debated issue of Kiwi-scripted theatre is essentially on the proudly patriotic side, whereby our unique voice ought to be thriving force, these days more than ever. I'm not the least bit anti-global theatre, but I agree we need to be mindful in continuing to promote and nurture our own world-class playwrights both established and up-and-coming.
However, such issues don't tend to enter my head at the time when witnessing such an engaging, by the book rendition of a proven (though controversial in its heyday) classic from the late Mr Pinter, still to all intents and purposes my personal favourite playwright.
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See also reviews by:
Janet McAllister (New Zealand Herald);