Fifty-one years after English playwright Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party was greeted with hostility and incomprehension from London audiences, the play still has the power to mystify audiences. Even though The Birthday Party is now considered a masterpiece, this new production by the MTC, adapted for an Australian setting and with the use of Aboriginal actors, left many of the audience asking “What does it mean?”
You would have thought we would be accustomed to such work. In the fifties, playwrights such as Pinter, Samuel Beckett and Ionesco paved the way for a shift in dramatic writing that focuses on the subtext by reproducing the banality of everyday conversations. Pinter was less ‘absurd’ than Beckett or Ionesco, using existing dramatic structure with stark dialogue to mine the dark seams of madness and cruelty in human beings. His characters are disturbingly familiar and his themes redolent of today’s dark fictions.
The drama unfolds within a seedy boarding house in an English seaside town. A childless couple, Meg and Petey, have one lodger, Stanley, a dispirited unemployed man, whom Meg tries to cheer up. Goldberg and McCann, Jewish and Irish respectively, arrive at the house looking for rooms, and decide to celebrate Stanley’s birthday with a party. Stanley is suspicious - with justification, as it turns out.
Director Julian Meyrick plays up the suspense and drama, and achieves, with the help of composer Darrin Verhagen, a spine-chilling and shocking moment just before interval. The dramatic arc of the play is finely drawn. Stephen Curtis‘s set, a coldly lit barren kitchen in a run-down boarding house, overhung by a claustrophobic set of concrete stairs, sets the mood perfectly. Matt Scott’s lighting is sinister and unforgiving, although the strobing effects are a little melodramatic.
Producing this quintessentially English play on the Australian stage brought a set of challenges, not only in the casting but in the script itself. Meyrick chose to cast Aboriginal actors in all but the role of Goldberg. Perhaps the status of Aboriginals in Australia in 2009 equated in his mind to that of Jews and the Irish in the England of 1958. The link is tenuous and adds an even more bizarre element to an already bizarre play. The alternatives would have been to replicate the English setting and accents or to ‘ockerise’ it. Meyrick’s choice works, strangely enough, and makes for an interesting and edgy version.
The use of Australian place names, on the other hand, is inconsistent and confusing. The character of McCann (Glenn Shea) is portrayed as Aboriginal rather than Irish, so he refers to Shepparton and other Australian place names, while the other characters are still talking about Edmonton and Boots the Chemist. This demands a little more credibility from the audience than usual!
Acting in a play with such a flat script gives the actors two choices. Either they behave as automata or they flesh out the character with a personality that is not written in the original. In this case, the actors who chose to flesh out their characters were the more successful. Pauline Whyman gave a charmingly naïve portrayal of Meg, who breezes through the horror story with an unflinching smile and swishing her cheerful skirts as she utters the final words on the party fiasco: ‘I was the belle of the ball'.
Glenn Shea was mesmerising as McCann, Goldberg’s yes-man, although he played down the sidekick element and focused on the menace of the character, adding obsessive compulsions and dramatic pauses to his larger than life portrayal. He did great justice to the script, with a fine grasp of the rhythm and pace of Pinter’s words. And when he broke into an Aboriginal song, he did not miss an emotional beat.
The dynamic between the two visitors, Goldberg and McCann, was almost reversed in this production. The character of Goldberg (Marshall Napier) came across as the less powerful, particularly in Act One. Napier’s voice was light and, if you were familiar with the script, seemed not commanding enough. But as the play went on, he took the upper hand and shone in the longer speeches. Both players enacted the interrogation scene with a sense of pace, mounting to a terrific crescendo.
Stanley (Isaac Drandic) is the focal point of the play, whether he is on or off the stage. From the outset Drandic conveyed the alienation of his character with a brooding intensity, setting up the darker forces that take over the play. But, in his scene with McCann, where he becomes more voluble, he lost that intensity and the tension dissipated. His appearance in Act Three, however, restored the menace. Jada Alberts was the other member of the cast, who gave an engaging performance as Lulu, an essential cog in the infernal machine of this plot.
This production succeeds in conveying the undercurrents that surge under the banal dialogue, although the rhythm of the working-class London speech is largely missing. The pace, particularly in the opening scene between Meg and Petey (Gregory Fryer), is laboriously slow. There is too much effort made to make the dialogue sound natural, too much effort to communicate, rather than the dodgem ride of monologues colliding, overlapping in the script.
For all its shortcomings, this production is a novel and risky take on The Birthday Party, which has, over the years and across continents, lost none of its power to intrigue, stimulate and horrify.
Melbourne Theatre Company
THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
by Harold Pinter
Venue: Fairfax Studio, The Arts Centre
Dates: 19 June – 1 August 2009
Times: Mon & Tues 6.30pm, Wed 1pm & 8pm, Thurs & Fri 8pm, Sat 4pm & 8.30pm
Duration: 2 hours, 20 mins
Tickets: from $58.20 (Under 30s - $30)
Bookings: MTC Theatre Box Office 03 8688 0800 or mtc.com.au