Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, first performed to large scale walk-outs at London’s Lyric Theatre in 1958, ranks among the most unsettling works of contemporary theatre. In it, an otherwise mundane seaside boarding house becomes the monstrous setting of a quixotic game of cat and mouse in which no character’s motivations or pasts are clear. Reclusive boarder Stanley is woken with the news that two unknown men will be coming to stay that afternoon. His landlady Meg and her husband Petey seem content with the news of their impending arrival, but it quickly sends Stanley into a state of manic worry. What he suspects of the visit is as unclear as the exact nature of his relationship with the maternal Meg, whose constant attention seems to cause him extraordinary discomfort. When the new guests, Goldberg and McCann, arrive, a birthday party is planned for Stanley, unbeknownst to him.
As is common in Pinter’s work, great dramatic tension is wrought from the inconsistency and ineffability of verbal communication, and the stories individuals tell about themselves and others. Characters’ personal histories are recounted in erratic fashion, as though fantasised or misremembered, while speech itself is wielded as an instrument of power, of domination rather than connection. When no other people are present, Stanley berates and intimidates the doting but overbearing figure of Meg. He makes clumsy, pitiable advances to the naïve and somewhat oblivious Lulu. Eventually, he in turn is interrogated and humiliated by the mysterious Goldberg and McCann, whose reasons for choosing to visit the boarding house remain unexplained even as they are horrifically, bewilderingly illustrated.
Pinter’s theatrical innovation lies in his removal of the backstory. Who are these characters? Why are they here? What is their relationship to one another? His is a profoundly difficult dramatic sensibility to execute, but under Michael Cabot’s direction — who has previously brought Pinter’s later work, The Caretaker, to the stage on two separate occasions — this production can regard itself as having been for the most part very successful. A quiet air of foreboding pervades the first act, while the exercising of power that perceived by Pinter in even the most quotidian of exchanges is dialed up after the intermission as the titular celebration gets underway. Unusually, it is the ominous opening act that is the most excruciating to witness, aided in no small part by the excellent performance of Cheryl Kennedy as Meg, whose interactions with Gareth Bennett-Ryan as Stan superbly illustrate a relationship in which neither party is capable of causing the other anything but frustration, and that deeper pain of feeling misunderstood.
It is in this aspect of staging Pinter that Cabot and co. are most effective: accessing the deep compassion that could look unflinchingly at a human relationship of very mundane cruelty and very much bring it to life. Where Beckett speaks of pain by removing the dialogue, Pinter simply doesn’t allow his characters to stop talking. So much is said, with so little actually communicated. At least consciously so; the anxiety is palpable. Meg is emblematic of this: she speaks that she might not think. Stanley too, in his hermit-like existence, practises another kind of retreat, from life itself as well as memory. Their exchanges make for bristling, occasionally searing theatre, as painful as they are beautifully realised.
It is in the second act, that containing the party itself, that the difficulties of staging manifest themselves. Dialogue becomes more fragmented, use of the stage itself becomes more spread out, and some more physical acting is required of the players. And as the narrative itself gathers pace, its parts begin to rattle. The character of Goldberg, played with natural gravitas by Jonathan Ashley and such a megalomaniacal, larger-than-life figure in his first act introduction, threatens at moments to descend into lecherous caricature as the night wears on. His seduction of Lulu, a wide-eyed Imogen Wilde, is all the more disturbing when undertaken ostensibly for the sake of power rather than the satisfaction of a merely sexual impulse. His groping of her legs and backside seem the motions of a randy old man rather than a master manipulator. McCann too, though played with great physical presence by Declan Rodgers, seems to have lost some of his fearfulness in the translation from sheet to the stage. His obeisance to Goldberg is more that of the professional sidekick than a man in thrall to some higher sense of duty.
These are, however, minor criticisms of an exceptional staging, and perhaps the necessary result of the characteristic ambiguity of Pinter’s writing, so difficult to realise in action. Cabot and his cast deliver a version of The Birthday Party that lacks the full-throttle menace of, say, William Friedkin’s 1968 film adaptation, but is at times incandescent in its depiction of the pain of its central characters. After Toby Frow’s magnificent staging of The Caretaker in Dublin’s Gate Theatre last year, it is a great privilege to be able to see now where Pinter’s career began, and an early iteration of the concerns that would go on to shape his writing. Challenging, discomfiting theatre, that has lost none of its power.
Jonathan Ashley — Goldberg
Gareth Bennett-Ryan — Stanley
Cheryl Kennedy — Meg
Ged McKenna — Petey
Declan Rodgers — McCann
Imogen Wilde — Lulu
Director: Michael Cabot
Designer: Bek Palmer
Lighting: Andy Grange
London Classic Theatre’s The Birthday Party will run at the Gaiety Theatre until Saturday 4th June, before going on tour. Tickets are available here.
Words: Oisín Murphy-Hall
Photo: Sheila Burnett