A Dialogued Review: Ian Rickson’s ‘The Birthday Party’ 2018
The following dialogue explores the recent production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, which is playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London’s West End from 9 January to 14 April 2018. The production is directed by Ian Rickson and stars Peter Wight as Petey, Zoë Wannamaker as Meg, Toby Jones as Stanley, Pearl Mackie as Lulu, Stephen Mangan as Goldberg and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as McCann. Set design is by the Quay Brothers, with lighting by Hugh Vanstone, music by Stephen Warbeck, sound by Simon Baker, and casting by Amy Ball CDG. In response to the production, four members of the Harold Pinter: Histories and Legacies project discuss their thoughts on this revival of one Pinter’s most seminal works…
A Return to the West End: Rickson’s Revival
Basil Chiasson: For me, I think Rickson has a quite subtle understanding of Pinter’s work, which gets expressed in him doing different and surprising things with the work; more a matter of him knowing how the plays can flex and what they can do than him experimenting in order assert his identity through the production. For example, my impression is that this production was humanizing all the characters and shifting focus – and perhaps blame – from Goldberg and McCann. They really seemed like cogs in a larger system in this production, and the fine details seemed to give the performance this spin.
A good deal has been made of the victimizer-victim dichotomy in Pinter’s work, and Rickson’s production prompts me to think: what about all the characters as victims in their own right? I felt Rickson made some unorthodox casting choices which enabled the characters we at this point know so well to break out the box and surprise us in new and important ways. At the same time, some of those unorthodox choices made me start to appreciate how Rickson’s is perhaps a style that appears to get away from standard or familiar treatments of Pinter only to demonstrate how well he knows the play. If you revisit reviews of his previous work on Pinter, such as Betrayal at the Comedy Theatre in 2011, they claim something similar.
Billy Smart: A friend of mine once observed than Rickson productions don’t really have emotional peaks and troughs, they just plough dutifully on through the text. It’s that sense of flatness that prevents me from fully engaging with his productions. Nothing ever really seems to exist in the moment when it happens on a human scale but contributes towards some larger conception that is being unfurled before you very slowly. It’s like watching a play reflected in a mirror for me.
Graham Saunders: I’d take issue about the flatness of Rickson’s productions. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that he tends to avoid histrionics and melodrama in his productions in favour of an understated approach that is no less emotional. An example of this can be found in his production of Conor McPherson’s The Weir, for the Royal Court Theatre at the Ambassadors in 1997. Think about the heartbreaking semi-monologue in that, for example, and Jack’s realization that he has lost the woman he really loved at her wedding and his tale of the barman cutting and preparing him a sandwich in a gesture of pity at seeing Jack’s grief. This same understatement, which is no less emotionally jagged, was evident in Rickson’s direction of Pinter in Krapp’s Last Tape at the Court in 2006.
Catriona Fallow: For me, if you’re aware of the original drubbing The Birthday Party received following its première at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1958, to have this production ten years after Pinter’s death in the Harold Pinter Theatre felt like a redemptive moment for the play, particularly in the hands of a seasoned director of Pinter’s work like Rickson. There was a lovely moment in Act 1 where Meg and Petey discuss the new show at the Palace:
PETEY: This is a straight show.
MEG: What do you mean?
PETEY: No dancing or singing.
MEG: What do they do then?
PETEY: They just talk.
That got a real laugh from the audience and I felt that Rickson’s production was really mindful of the legacy it was part of, almost as if the West End were welcoming this work back and saying ‘we got it wrong the first time, maybe you [Pinter] were on to something, maybe people just talking to each other is enough, clearly.’
The Interval: Too Soon?
Basil: One of the things that stood out about this production was the choice to place the interval after the end of Act 1, which was early.
Billy: It’s always regrettable when three-act plays have just the one interval, but if you must do it, it should probably be at the end of Act 2, not Act 1.
Graham: The placing of the interval was disconcerting – it came far too early. It would have made more sense to have it following directly from the aftermath of Stanley’s party. Pinter has spoken about how in his writing he observes curtain lines – moments of high dramatic tension that become natural points for the interval and to give the audience time to recover and reorientate themselves.
Basil: I felt this too, but only in the moment. Throughout Act 1 the actors quite obviously played up the comedy, and the effect, I sensed, was to minimize or even erase the menace we always expect. That is until the final moments before the end of Act 1 which consisted of Meg presenting Stanley with the drum, which he beats as he’s marching around in circles with Meg applauding like a child. I felt that this moment complicated things through this last gesture before the curtain drops: Jones throws the drum sticks against the wall, drops the drum, and walks off. The lighting and sound design supported this shift in image and tone. This seemed to me the tipping point we typically find and experience at a much later point in productions of Pinter’s work, and that henceforth the world began to darken inexorably. I wonder if the placement of the interval at this juncture – which unsettles our expectations of the narrative arc of this play – was to some extent part of Rickson’s re-exploration of how this canonized play might continue to unsettle us?
Zoë Wannamaker’s Meg
Billy: Over the five times that I’ve seen it something that has changed in my reactions to the play is that every time my interest and engagement become more and more focussed on Meg, whose inner life and imagination seems just as strange and evocative as Stanley’s, even if she’s calling upon a much smaller range of understanding than his. Her regressions to childhood and pride in managing affect me more than what happens to anyone else. Her vulnerability always seems to come from somewhere that strikes me as emotionally true and unexpected, and it never feels heavy-handed. It seems to come naturally.
I find her inner life a bit more interesting than the others, because I don’t think that she knows that she’s lying about anything. There’s something of the Holy Fool about her. And her nature doesn’t feel like a metaphor for something else. In this case, it probably comes across to me through Wannamaker’s skills, and her still-rather-girlish deportment and expressions, rather than because of anything in the production.
Graham: I agree with Billy’s observations about Meg. In all of the productions I’ve seen, either onstage or on film and television, Meg has come across as a comedic pantomime figure, but there are enough intimations of an unknown inner life – ‘I’ve had some lovely afternoons in that room,’ she says – to sustain another interpretation of Meg. And we must not forget that the last lines of the play belong to her – deliberately so I think. Wannamaker seemed to capture some of this as well as a sexual quality in Meg that was neither grotesque nor ridiculous.
Cat: For me, Wannamaker’s Meg, particularly in the birthday party scene itself, seemed to encapsulate both the supposed fragility of an older woman and the naiveté of a small child. On the one hand there was her spangley pink party dress and her childish giggle, her insistence: ‘let’s play a game, let’s play a game.’ But Wannamaker’s (deliberate) physicality was reminiscent of a particular kind of fragile, elderly body; it felt like a double-violence against both an older body and a child-like innocence when Jones-as-Stanley grabbed her.
Basil: Yes, that casting choice was quite interesting and I think enabled a number of sides of her to come through. I was both charmed by her and really afraid for her as the party matured but with other emotions in between. Her attire, I felt, really contributed to the complexity of her identity, working both with and against her way of speaking and acting in ways that seemed to me meaningful.
Toby Jones’s Stanley
Billy: For me, Toby Jones was a bit subdued – Stanley seems to have changed rather less between acts two and three than I’ve seen before?
Basil: I was disconcerted all through Act 1 by Jones’s performance of Stanley as this subdued.
Cat: Yes, this Stanley was subdued (almost pathetic?) in lots of ways – shambling in with baked beans all down his top – but personality wise appeared quite in control. Stanley was actually more calmly assertive in Act 1 than we see McCann anywhere in the entire play, for example. McCann, however, is clearly more unhinged and has a directive that he has to carry out, so for me that’s what makes him dangerous, rather than any latent power or capacity for physical dominance over Stanley.
Basil: On the matter of Stanley not changing across Acts 2 and 3, I began to feel like there was something to this early disposition of Jones’s Stanley as I returned from the interval and the play carried on from Act 2. Through Acts 1 and 2 I felt like Stanley was really marginalized, literally placed at the edge of the action for long periods so as make him seem a diminutive figure. But he began to engage and impress me when he stood his ground with McCann in Act 2. I don’t think Jones was static, even though he may not appear to have changed across the play.
Peter Wight’s Petey
Basil: I admired Peter Wight’s performance as Petey. He’s fidgety and anxious to leave the house after Goldberg and McCann arrive, and I thought this nicely picked up on and mirrored McCann’s instability. I found Wight’s nervousness added an interesting dimension to the play, more than simply foreshadowing that something bad is afoot.
Cat: He’s the most intuitive of all the characters, and until this production I’d always thought of him primarily as a foil for Meg in the opening and closing scenes. In this production, he’s clearly intuitive and senses things aren’t right, and consequently is desperate to get out. This potentially puts a particular spin on Petey’s final warning to Stanley to not let them tell you what to do and of course his refusal to tell Meg they have taken Stanley away.
Billy: Its a bit of a mystery why Petey stops blocking Goldberg and McCann in that particular interaction between the men, and ‘Don’t let them tell you what to do’ is underlined thrice, by a massive pause and a fiddly lighting cue as well as the line itself.
Graham: For me, I interpreted the last scene entirely differently: out of the three productions the play I’ve seen this was the most proactive Petey in my memory. When Goldberg and McCann come to take Stanley away, there is a moment where Petey’s intervention seems to stop them momentarily.
Stephen Mangan’s Goldberg
Basil: As with Jones, I found Mangan’s performance unusual and disconcerting but then was gradually seduced by it going forward from Act 2. Mangan’s performance of Goldberg as a loud talker, from the moment he appears on stage, who was physically dwarfing McCann seemed a great inversion of what we typically see and what I think the play script is strongly coded to suggest. One real highlight for me was the first interrogation of Stanley, which I thought Mangan played so well and I’m sure I’ll henceforth consider an example of actors who intuitively know how to play a Pinter character.
Cat: I totally agree; what struck me more than anything about Mangan’s Goldberg was his size. He was this giant, suffocating presence and I think Basil and I responded really positively to his performance. The discrepancy between Jones and Mangan was acute, and then later in Act 3 when McCann kneels before Goldberg everything was placed to make his body look as big as possible. They really looked hilariously, yet unsettlingly, different in scale, which I think was mirrored in Mangan’s overall characterization of Goldberg, oscillating between the comedic and the sinister.
He radiated this constant, latent aggression in everything that he was doing; his physicality that always seemed slightly too quick or slightly too still relative to what everyone else was doing, the sleight-of-hand of the staging, and his bellowing outbursts were gripping.
Graham: I feel like a dissenting voice in that for me Mangan hadn’t yet found Goldberg in his characterization, with the exception of how he accentuated his predatory lechery. His expansive leer after the line ‘She wasn’t a Sunday school teacher for nothing’ speech was just one moment amongst others that even saw him patting Meg’s rear. It was noticeable on the night I attended that a large school party found such moments uncomfortable. This was especially the case in the scene at the party where Lulu is perched on Goldberg’s lap. Here, she reverts to a child like state that carries with it sexual overtones (‘Do you think you knew me when I was a little girl’), to which Goldberg reciprocates (‘Were you a nice little girl?… Maybe I played piggy-back with you’). By today’s moral barometer it is going to be Goldberg’s grooming and sexual exploitation of Lulu he’ll be judged for rather than his part in the psychological torture and abduction of Stanley. Returning to Mangan, I felt that with his background in comedy he never really caught Goldberg’s intrinsic menace and sense of threat – compare his performance to Pinter’s reptilian bonhomie in the 1987 BBC television production, which for me still remains the definitive Goldberg. Related to this was how much Mangan resembled (in appearance) a young Harold Pinter!
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s McCann
Graham: McCann was a different matter. I felt in this production the actor caught perfectly the dual nature of this character – fearful and cowed in the opening scene, switching to a terrifying figure of menace once he knows his orders. In the past I’ve always found the ‘blow in my mouth’ business rather silly and self-consciously mysterious. However, here we saw two very vulnerable torturers who doubted their own powers.
Basil: From the play script, I’ve always had a strong image of McCann as being the larger man, compared to Goldberg; he’s the henchman, right? He’s the one upstairs doing the ‘work’ on Stanley.
Cat: Yes, I’ve always seen Goldberg is the administrator to McCann’s muscle.
Basil: And Vaughan-Lawlor, as McCann, is so lean – a stick man – and is shouting at Stanley to sit down and he’s just generally being aggressive. So there was a lot of tension built up through such contrasts.
Cat: This McCann was, for me, far more unsettling, more unhinged than I read him in the play. It felt like whatever psychological trauma that they’re putting Stanley through to bring him back to the nameless organization, McCann has only recently gone through himself. That’s why Stanley and McCann’s relationship was subtler than I’d ever read it as. There was a fragility to McCann’s psyche, a sense that he wasn’t simply keen to get the ‘work’ done, but that he too was struggling to endure their grisly task.
Basil: To represent McCann like that really makes the encounter with Stanley so much more interesting. If McCann frightens or dominates Stanley in any easy or wholesale way, there is nowhere to take that particular drama; it can’t be interesting.
Cat: It could be anybody’s game for a brief moment.
Basil: Like many others, I’ve always read McCann’s tearing of the newspaper strips as way to intimidate Stanley. In this production it seemed a means to settle himself, or to just cope.
Cat: And when he brought the bottles for the party in he lined them up perfectly, mirroring the strips of paper? He struck me as a someone who has had to put pretty serious routines in place, like a soldier who has come back from active duty and has had to adopt certain patterns to make themselves feel secure. I’d never seen either of them as that complex before. Until this production, I’d never read McCann or Goldberg as people who had experienced trauma.
Basil: The moment in Vaughan-Lawlor’s performance that floored me was late in the play after Stanley’s voice cracks and he’s on his knees with head to McCann’s waist. When he expires and ceases to move, Vaughan-Lawlor very subtly caressed Jones’s head against his own body. As is always the case this a subjective interpretation of a fleeting gesture, but this detail gave me a palpable sense that McCann, perhaps along with Stanley, was so relieved that the proceedings were finally over. The exhaustion this conveyed and McCann’s expression of what might have been tenderness really made me think about how alienated we become when compelled to harm others, even though we might appear to hold power over others.
Pearl Mackie’s Lulu
Graham: I’ve always felt sorry for actresses playing Lulu. She’s one of Pinter’s weakest female creations in that she’s never given any real agency, and at times seems only there to make up numbers at the party or to be a recipient of Stanley’s sexual violence and Goldberg’s lechery. I wasn’t expecting much from an actress who rates for me as one of the all-time worst Doctor Who companions (eclipsing even Bonnie Langford). But Mackie turned out to be a credible Lulu, better than Julie Walters in the 1987 BBC production, who was too old for the role.
Billy: Mackie seemed a bit worldly for Lulu to me. I couldn’t see how she would be a family friend of Meg and Petey’s in this instance. I’ve always understood that they’ve rather thoughtlessly been trying to match-make between Stanley and Lulu, which she goes along with because there isn’t much else going on for her in their town, but the tremendous age difference in this production made suspending my disbelief enough to support this interpretation impossible.
Basil: I found there to be a bit of symmetry between Mackie’s Lulu and Jones’s Stanley, especially when she came downstairs the morning after the party and confronts Goldberg and McCann (a bit like in The Caretaker when Mick says to Davies, ‘What’s the game?’). When Goldberg ordered McCann at that moment to deal with her as she fulminated against the former, I felt the force of the men’s weakness, even their fear, just as much as Lulu’s obvious anger and defiance. I think this kind of interplay between all the actors enabled the moment in that scene to become about more than showing one woman asserting her power, which is timely given the Harvey Weinstein debacle and all it has triggered.
Cat: I agree. And my sense was the audience were really behind her, she perhaps felt the most contemporary of the characters? She is the only person who challenges Goldberg and McCann; even when McCann aggressively rails at her with his religious diatribe, she didn’t project any sense of fear. There was no backing away.
Billy: I am bewildered by every critic’s description of the set as realistic. They’ve made the room deliberately much bigger-than-life and have made a lot of peeling, dirty, dark green wallpaper reaching high ‘into the sky.’ It makes it rather dingy to watch. Stanley has been given the most expensive-looking drum that I’ve seen in any production.
Basil: Perhaps the ways in which the set was not realistic were revealed differently depending on where you were sat in the auditorium? I did feel the set, designed by the Quay Brothers team, was strongly coded to be read as realistic/naturalistic – all the furniture and objects were standard looking – yet that base was inflected with expressionism: The wallpaper and walls, you mention Billy, reaching upward but also decaying, and also stylizations like the sun flooding in when windows and doors were opened and, my favourite, that oddly shaped floor space. Writing about Pinter’s early plays, scholars have claimed that despite featuring ‘elements from the real world, the overall pattern was unreal and grotesque’ and that the work presents an ‘unreal reality’ (Schroll 1971, 40). I think this particular set design captures what these observations are finding in those first six years of play scripts, so roughly from 1957–1962, from The Room to The Lover.
Cat: Coming back to the point about Mangan as Goldberg, I think what you’re describing here contributed to his scale. From where we were sitting in the circle, that slope to the stage floor made him appear gigantic. And I agree with Billy on the walls: no room would really be built like that. But what I liked was that, at a glance, it looked like a dingy interior space, but as the play progressed it started to look more warped, like someone had taken the edges of a room and just stretched them back making everything appear really distended.
Basil: There was a lot of effort made by some actors to keep the doors shut; while others, Mackie for example, opened the windows to actively let the air and light in.
Cat: With the front of the stage is so laughably ripped apart, it felt like such a futile attempt to try and keep things inside. Again, that distended quality of something spilling out uncontrollably and there’s nothing you can do to pull it back and keep things together.
Graham: On the subject of light, I found the darkness was one of the most impressive parts of the production, especially in technical terms of managing to plunge the theatre into stygian darkness for a short while. What I found especially interesting was how disconcerting some audience members found this – scrabbling about to switch on their phones. This was a very visceral demonstration of how some fear the darkness, perhaps because the darkness always wins in the end.