The Hothouse - Premiere

Programme Cover

First presented at Hampstead Theatre, London, on 24 April 1980 and transferred to the Ambassador Theatre, London on 25 June 1980

" In 1979 I re-read The Hothouse and decided it was worth presenting on the stage. I made a few changes during rehearsal, mainly cuts" - Harold Pinter's note in Faber and Faber
Plays 1

Roote - Derek Newark
Gibbs - James Grant
Lamb - Roger Davidson
Miss Cutts - Angela Pleasence
Lush - Robert East
Tubb - Michael Forrest
Lobb - Edward de Souza

Directed by Harold Pinter

Set Designer - Eileen Diss
Costume Designer - Elizbeth Waller
Lighting - Gerry Jenkinson
Sound - Dominic Muldowney

by Benedict Nightingale
Harold Pinter was absolutely right to suppress The Hothouse back in 1958. After the critical reception of The Birthday Party in the same year ñ an injustice as scandalous as that perpetrated upon Whitingís Saintís Day and later, Bondís Saved ñ it could have expected little more than demoralising dismissal, combined (no doubt) with covert accusations of plagiarism. But what should have been evident then, and seems glaringly so 22 years later, is how much less indebted the play is to Ionesco, Kafka et al than to the haunted grange Pinter carries on his own shoulders and uses for mental habitationwhen he is writing well.

Even today a respected colleague of mine can complain that it says nothing more ëinterestingí than that there is ëstate-subsided terrorí. That pronouncement expects us to agree that itís uninteresting that an anonymous ministry should be packing off selected patients to a ërest homeí where they swap names for numbers, are kept permanently locked up, and can, so it seems, be casually murdered without anyone being the wiser. It also misses the main emphases of The Hothouse. Pinterís plays have always been either apolitical or political by inference only; and the function of the patients, festering neglected offstage, is less to provoke post-hoc parliamentary questions about the clandestine activities of Whitehall, than to bring out the degree to which the principal characters ñ the staff immediately in charge of them ñ are self-absorbed and self-seeking. That, and to add timbre to an increasingly sinister atmosphere.
On first thoughts, I regretted that director Pinter had ignored playwright Pinterís most striking stage-direction, which (according to the text published by Eyre Methuen at £3.95) asks gowned patients briefly to ëweave, dip, gather, disperse, whisper, giggle, weave, slither, whisperí in a low blue light. On second, I thought the omission wise: how much more suggestive simply to hear, as we intermittently do, what sounds like a long, death-rattle, followed by a wail, followed by a dry cackle, echoing down the corridors.

The corridors of Pinterís mind, too. Perhaps also the corridors of our own sub-consciousness. Even more than The Birthday Party, The Hothouse progresses with the eccentric logic of a nightmare, and one concocted by a decidedly original dreamer. In the earlier play the menacing Goldberg loses his temper just once, when heís called ëSimyí, the pet name his mother gave him: on at least two occasions the boss of the rest home as inexplicably and aggressively insists that his mother breast-fed him. Goldberg and his sidekick McCann reduce the harmless Stanley to a mental vegetable by browbeating him with bizarre and seemingly irrelevant questions: the most innocent and altruistic character in The Hothouse, one Lamb, is shut up in something very like Orwellís Room 101, tormented with sound and light, and subjected to a not-dissimilar inquisition through a hidden speaker. Is he ëvirgo intactí? Has he always been ëvirgo intactí? Do women frighten him? Their clothes, their shoes, their voices, their laughter? The play actually ends with Lamb, electrodes still attached, sitting and ëstaring as if in a catatonic tranceí. Walk warily through the playís chambers, peeping into its corners as you go, and youíll find infantile longings, sadistic urges, lust, misogyny, sudden and unpredictable violence, suspicion, paranoia, dread and more dread. Anything may happen, from any angle and for no apparent reason. Something does happen.
Perhaps this makes The Hothouse sound disconcertingly grotesque and random. Certainly, the situation is much quirkier that that of the play which followed it, The Caretaker; but the characters are recognisably real and their confrontations have purpose and shape, in essence Pinterís familiar tussle for power and territory. Roote, the boss, blusters and threatens in whatís clearly a desperate and losing attempt to maintain some semblance of authority and even of identity. He has only the vaguest idea of whatís happening around him. Indeed, he doesnít know itís Christmas Day in the hothouse. He is especially nervous of his deputy, Gibbs, Pinterishly barking, ëdonít stand so close to meí and ëyou were looking at meí at moments of maximum security; and heís right to be so, since Gibbs is cold, devious, unscrupulous, capable of sacrificing Lamb to gain his ends and, it may even be, of murdering everyone else as well. This unorthodox social-work team is completed by Lush, all smiling insolence and needling brinkmanship in his dealings with his superiors, and Miss Cutts, the first of several Pinter women to use their somewhat serpentine sexuality to bait, trap, control and manipulate.

Derek Newark, Michael Forrest, Harold Pinter (directing) and Edward de Souza

Pinter was to write sparely, better, much better. But if The Hothouse seems rather heavy-handed and long-winded beside his finest work, weíre almost always aware that both hand and wind are pretty special. The later Pinter would not launch into a corrective explanation after Roote snaps, ë you think Iím a bit slow? Iím as quick as a pythoní; but then few but Pinter would have thought of the line in the first place. And this Pinter is already impressively in command of his distinctive talent: the question asked, repeated, left ominously unanswered; the edgy, loaded argument about, of all things, whether the Christmas turkey was bone dry of thoroughly swimming in gravy; the lies, the emotional camouflage, the obliquity, the certainty, the silence; and all adding up to something the, if it hit you or me in the small hours, would have us awake, downstairs and shakily brewing a cup of Typhoo in no time. The Hothouse, like The Birthday Party, successfully reifies the amorphous anxieties and fears most of us prefer to repress: it was well worth digging out of the Pinter archives.
© The New Statesman 2001

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