|The Birthday Party 2005
Birmingham Repertory Theatre, UK Tour
& Duchess Theatre, London
Birmingham Repertory Theatre & Tour
Duchess Theatre, London
Petey - Geoffrey Hutchings
Meg - Eileen Atkins
Stanley - Paul Ritter
Lulu - Sinead Matthews
Goldberg - Henry Goodman
McCann - Finbar Lynch
Director - Lindsay Posner
Desinger - Peter McKintosh
Lighting Designer - Hartley T A Kemp
Sound Designer - John Leonard
Duchess Theatre, London
Tuesday April 26, 2005
In 1958 Harold Pinter's play was famously savaged by the daily critics. Now
it comes before us as a modern classic. And, watching Lindsay Posner's richly
enjoyable West End revival, I started speculating about the cultural changes
that had made a once baffling play so apparently accessible.
I suspect one problem in the 50s was that critics assumed Pinter was writing
in the absurdist vein of Ionesco and NF Simpson. Now, it is much easier to
see the play for what it is: a rep thriller reinvented by a man who's read
Kafka. One of the things I love about the play is that it uses such devices
as the psychotic fugitive and instant blackouts that featured in 50s potboilers.
At the same time, it ushers us into a world of authentic persecution and torment.
Since we now know more about Pinter, it is also easier for us to spot the play's
political resonances. The basic situation is that Stanley, a truculent recluse
hiding away in a dingy seaside boarding house, is terrorised and eventually
taken away by Goldberg and McCann, two agents of an undefined organisation.
Who or what they represent is left open. But it is hard now not to see them
as embodiments of religious tradition, socio-political orthodoxy and, most
especially, the corporate world in which the individual is subordinate to the
demands of the company ethos.
One of the joys of this revival is watching Eileen Atkins and Henry Goodman
sinking their teeth into gratifying parts without destroying the balance of
the whole. Atkins is extraordinary as Meg, the smothering landlady who presides
over these dingy seaside digs. For a start, Atkins leaves you in no doubt that
she is besotted by Stanley as her tongue lasciviously probes his ear or she
gazes at him in doe-eyed wonderment. But Atkins also brings out the childlike
pathos of the infantilised Meg. When her husband, Pe tey, describes a seaside
play in which people just talk, Atkins gazes at him in baffled incomprehension.
And at the birthday party sadistically organised for Stanley, she floats around
in a filmy green dress as if trying to recapture her lost innocence.
a mesmerising performance superbly matched by Goodman's Goldberg.
Goodman exudes false, cuff-shooting bonhomie but underneath
his paeans to a sentimentalised Jewish past there is always
a sense of danger. You get a glimpse of it in the lethal stare
he gives the unwary McCann, who claims: "You've always
been a true Christian." And Goodman has a nice trick of
allowing his smile to linger too long as if it had been refrigerated.
But Goodman really comes into his own in the last act when
he reveals the sweat-stained panic of the organisation man
perpetually in thrall to some higher authority.
This, even more than in the famous interrogation scene, is where you see Pinter's
debt to Kafka: in the notion that everyone is contaminated by the mysterious
hierarchy of power. In line with this, Paul Ritter rightly suggests that Stanley
is not some supine sufferer but a demented, unshaven wreck tormented by his
own sense of guilt and betrayal. At the same time Rit ter invests with extraordinary
pathos a line where Stanley, recalling a piano concert he once gave, says: "My
father nearly came down to hear me."
But one of the delights of Pinter's play is that you always discover something
new in it. Finbar Lynch's dour, buttoned-up, very funny McCann, for instance,
reminds us that the man is a recently unfrocked priest. And, even if it is
not exactly new, Geoffrey Hutchings's Petey reminds us that he is the one obstacle
to Stanley's abduction and that when he cries: "Stan, don't let them tell
you what to do," it is with the grief-stricken tone of one whose spirit
has already been broken.
Posner's production, which started at Birmingham Rep, may lack some of the
initial jauntiness of Sam Mendes's 1994 National Theatre revival. But it is
still a probing, intelligent and very well-acted version of a brilliant play:
one that was ahead of its time in 1958 but that now seems a frighteningly timeless
account of the difficulty of maintaining spiritual resistance to the demands
of political and social orthodoxy.
by Michael Billington
The Birthday Party
Duchess Theatre, London
Published: April 27 2005
Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, new in 1958, has become, of all strange
things, a classic. Strange, because even now it is so very unsettling. You
think you know this set-up? You think you know these people? You don't. In
how many different ways has Pinter dramatised this? Unknowable, unfathomable,
Watching this seaside living-room, this landlady Meg, this deckchair attendant her husband Petey,
this their lodger Stanley, the flashes of flirtation, sexiness
and subversive comedy between them and Lulu and the two sinister
new arrivals McCann and Goldberg, it's easy to think "How
Alan Ayckbourn" and then "How Joe Orton", even "How
But the world of The Birthday Party is Kafka-on-Sea. Banal reality keeps tipping
into the bizarre surreal and back again. The most comically ordinary situation
becomes one fraught with terror. Give Pinter two people in a room, and he gives
you suspense, humour, recognition, pathos and terror.
Fear afflicts each of the six characters. Nobody watching Lindsay Posner's
production can miss the appalling moment when Goldberg (Henry Goodman), the
play's smiling villain, elsewhere so assured and frightening, suddenly breaks
down in mid-sentence: he tries to affirm a world view and, three times, fails.
The fierce/ smooth contrasts of Goodman's character, and his intelligence and
virtuoso musicality, make Goldberg register unforgettably.
The whole cast is superb: it is marvellous how naturally the play's changes
of tempo and dynamics work here. Eileen Atkins is a definitive Meg just because
of her incisive clarity. Every stroke of complacency, anxiety, inadequacy,
dottiness is rendered with piercing lucidity: the glowing adoration she has
for Stanley is always undercut by her petty fears and by her need to believe
that all's well. As Stanley, Paul Ritter plays the character's tough/weak contrasts
with haunting mordancy, right up to his final crushed/uncrushable departure.
Finbar Lynch's McCann - most daft and most weak when most bullying, sweetest
when least expected - is another ideal performance.
Perhaps the most surprising twist of the production is the odd strength of
character that Geoffrey Hutchings brings to Petey: staunch until he, too, suddenly
crumples at the very end. After the play ends, the notes of pity and fear it
strikes go on playing, hauntingly, in your head.
By Alastair Macaulay
Photographer - Nobby Clark
First Image - Eileen Atkins as Meg
Second Image - Henry Goodman as Goldberg
Third Image - Paul Ritter as Stanley & Finbar Lynch as McCann
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