How is a Pinter play like a Greek tragedy? No, don’t look at me like that, it’s a serious question. Way back in GCSEs, we read Euripides’ Iphigenaia in Aulis and Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. The one seemed choked with otiose formality, while my enduring memory of the other can be summarised in the following dialogue:
A: You don’t get proper pint glasses, like, yer know, the ones yer used to.
B: Too fucking right, chum.
Yet though these plays are on different linguistic planets, they have a hell of a lot in common. I found both equally boring then; now they buzz with the same kind of static electricity. If you read either script without engaging your imagination, both are lifeless, both made up of dead ribs of language with great cold gaps in between. But if a cast fills in those gaps with sinew and hot blood, supplies the characters with hearts and brains and eyes, both plays come alive as theatre in its purest form.
In 3rd week, the Burton Taylor will be staging two Pinter plays, The Homecoming and The Lover, in the round. Playing these scripts with an audience on three sides is one of the toughest tests of nerve an actor can face. You cannot just say the lines in these plays with your lips; every part of your body must speak. The director, for his or her part, must make sure that the silences sing or hum or throb as loud as the words.
Welcome to the glass chamber.
This production is an unqualified success. It grabs you by the balls and clings on for dear life. It is tense, spare, and moving and chilling by turns. It is such an excellent piece of theatre that I find myself quite unprofessionally unsure of where to begin reviewing it.
Let’s start with a quick synopsis. Teddy has left his working-class family in north Lunnon to take a doctorate of philosophy in the States. He comes back after six years with a new wife, Ruth. The couple arrive in a household – perhaps ‘pack’ would be a more accurate word – of four men, dominated by the ageing patriarch Max. This family seethes with testosterone, and the middle son Lenny is spoiling to humiliate Max. Scissors, cheese sandwiches and glasses of water have become warzones. Ruth steps into this dogpit as the only woman in the house since the death of Max’s wife. At first she seems cowed, but through a subtle blend of sex and realpolitik she seizes power.
Will Hooper’s cast puts nothing between the audience and Pinter’s vision. This is raw, primal theatre. Watching the actors move about one another as the play unfolds is like following the balance of powers in nineteenth century Europe: the tiniest gestures are magnified to an almost cosmic scale. We are living in an arbitrary universe where all that matters is power, where logic has fucked off across the Atlantic, and the characters scream at one another with their bodies. Lenny, played with a welcome touch of Michael Caine by Dave Ralf, asks Max what the night of his conception was like.
‘…it’s a question long overdue, from my point of view, but as we happen to be passing the time of day here tonight I thought I’d pop it to you.’
‘You’ll drown in your own blood.’
‘If you’d prefer to answer in writing I’d have no objection…’
Cassie Baraclough’s Ruth is like an incipient thunderstorm in an azure dress. She radiates confidence, control and sex in an outstanding performance. Her husband, who stands to lose his wife and his family, is played sympathetically by Rhys Bevan, striking a perfect balance between pathos and detachment. There no cruelty in his voice when he says at the height of the drama, ‘you’re just objects. You move about. I observe.’ If there is a weak link in this grim iron chain, it is perhaps Max’s younger brother Sam, who does not quite convince, but this scarcely undermines the production. The whole unfolds with the inevitability and force of a Classical drama, and Pinter has turned demotic English into a vehicle as expressive as high tragic Greek. This cast do not miss a single nuance.
VERDICT: You can watch all this for four pounds. Beg, steal, borrow or get an overdraft extension, for these are four of the best pounds you will ever spend.
The Lover is an altogether different play. It opens with an everyday conversation between an everyday husband and wife, when the husband casually asks, ‘is your lover coming today?’
Less structured and psychologically intense than The Homecoming, this play shines a Stasi-bright light on the face of the modern marriage. It does so with a great deal of success. Directing for the first time, veteran actress Ed Pearce has chosen to stage it with humour and a slightly dreamlike quality.
This plays to the strengths of the two actors. Matt Gavan looks a little flustered at first but has a fine line in spiked wit, and manages to add a bit of steel to his P.G. Wodehouse-like character. In the scenes where he is called upon to muster some menace he takes control of the stage very effectively. Ruby Thomas, meanwhile, generally makes a good job of the slightly wispy wife, and commands attention in the persona of the adulteress.
The Lover is witty, but it is also deadly serious. ‘You’re perfectly happy, aren’t you?’ This production’s staging blurs the scenes of marriage with the scenes of adultery to the point where it is no longer possible to tell them apart, and you suspect that every husband is cheating on his wife with the wife of another husband, who is in turn cheating…the infidelity seems to tessellate out all the way to infinity, so that the whole of bourgeois Britain is playing the adultery game. Sex, love and contentment spin around and around on a wheel of fortune until you are hardly sure which is which.
Enjoyable and provocative though the play is, it lacks a bit of Tabasco. Perhaps Thomas and Gavan are a little tired from The Odyssey; this play puts a lot of dramatic pressure on two actors, and from time to time they seem to buckle under the strain. This is a drama about repression, and all the things that are left unspoken should creep out in the characters’ body language, but this doesn’t always happen.They’re just not all there all the time. This slight thinness about the edges, however, should not detract from a spare and elegant production that is well worth going to watch. The Lover is poised, sexy and genuinely funny, and its lightness of touch is a good counterpoint to the brutality of The Homecoming.
VERDICT: sharp and entertaining
The Lover and The Homecoming are at the BT studio, 3rd week, Tuesday – Saturday, 1930 and 2130