The works of Harold Pinter, one of a select few playwrights to have his own adjective, have been enjoying a run of success in Oxford recently. In Michaelmas, the Keble O’Reilly played host to a production of The Birthday Party that was rightly lauded, and it is impossible not to notice the ad campaign for Hothouse, opening at the Playhouse in February. If you can’t wait that long until your next Pinter fix, a production of his last play, Celebration is winging its way to the Michael Pinch theatre very soon.
Three couples sit in a restaurant, the most expensive in town. At one table, an anniversary celebration takes place. At another is a banker and his vacuous sycophant of a wife. They talk. They leave. The play ends. The curtain falls. Fin. Nothing happens. This is not a play of plot; rather one of dialogue, of twisted words and grim, violent malice hidden behind barely disguised insults. The two tables’ conversations veer from topic to sordid topic but never really leave the essential discussion of two things: power and sex. Most of the time, both at once. For if it’s the banker, Russell’s (Anirudh Mathur) wife (Ellie Wade) trying to ruffle his self-assured, cocky feathers by describing her sexual conquests “behind the filing cabinet” as a voluptuous young secretary, or the play’s other two wives, Julie and Prue (Juliet Roe and Isobel Ormiston, respectively) cuddling up – literally – to the restaurateur, Pinter’s dialogue depicts a malicious power play hardly hidden behind dialogue that swings, pendulum-like, between passive-aggressive chatter to outright spite.
In a play like this, it is very difficult to talk of actors performing any better or any worse than one another: the intimate nature of Pinter’s dialogue and staging demands that each actor be up to the task, lest the piece fail for want of one voice. And the actors at Jesus are up to the task. Clearly, this is a cast that appreciates its script: Pinter’s acerbic wit is delivered with a louche, deadpan insouciance, with near-perfect timing. Sometimes, however, this deadpan acting goes too far; whilst Celebration is a play concerned with the masking of emotion, it is not a play of studied emotionlessness. However, the cast at Jesus seem reserved, nervous even. This, of course, isn’t an inappropriate response, possibly even a fitting one: a Pinter production is not an easy ride, for the audience or for those performing it. This is not, however, a fault that detracts seriously from the quality of the acting, or of the production overall. For all its reserve, Celebration is a sensitive and well-acted piece of theatre, and a fitting introduction to one of Pinter for anyone who has not yet seen any of his works.
Celebration is being performed at the Michael Pinch Studio Theatre from the 24th to the 28th of January.