The Hothouse, a portrayal of an unspecified asylum-esque institution, is one of Pinter’s most harrowing works; the depiction is restricted to the small group of staff, raped and murdered patients referred to only by number.  Such a play demands a set of nuanced and complex performances; it requires something ambitious and original to make a worthwhile production.  Fortunately, this version by Illyria Productions claims to do just that: the programme makes the sweeping statement that for every part they have obtained “the most talented individual for that role within the university.”

As soon as I entered the college squash court where the rehearsal was being held, to be greeted by the sight of the cast of The Hothouse standing in a circle, intently focused on throwing several tennis balls between them (apparently to heighten appreciation of Pinter’s infamous pauses), I knew this was no run-of-the-mill theatre preview.  The twenty-strong technical team is also present; this production has one of largest budgets of any student production at the playhouse, and they seem intent to use it.  I was afforded only a brief glimpse of the first act, devoid of set or lighting, but those few scenes promised that every expectation would be fulfilled.

Those few scenes easily showcased the obvious talent of the cast, but it was the methods of director Jamie MacDonagh that truly shone.  Each of the scenes was performed two or three times: for each iteration, the director instructed the actors to change their objectives and persona for the scene.  These alternate between the bizarre and the brilliant; watching the inept Roote (Matt Gavan) desperately trying to prevent his subordinate Gibbs (Ziad Samaha) from leaving halfway through a conversation, however ludicrous, suddenly exposed the true nature of their relationship more brazenly than the dialogue cared to do.  In every performance, each character became a caricature of a single aspect of their personality or desire; it was fascinating to watch these slowly be constructed into the combination that both director and cast feels best  captures the essence of Pinter’s work.

It is a testimony as much to the skill of the cast as to the brilliance of the play that every scene that they played out, no matter how it is done, remained fresh.  MacDonagh promises his method will produce a subtly different performance each night, adapted as the accomplished actors fine tune their characters responses to reveal a marginal variation in the rich subtext every time the curtain opens.  The question even crossed my mind, watching the process played out multiple times in the space of an hour, whether the rehearsal could be more enlightening and entertaining than the performance.  Nevertheless, the finished product, in whatever form it appears, will be something truly spectacular, cerebral and haunting to behold.

5 STARS