Play / Silence

Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter
The Other Room
Porters, Cardiff

Victoria John, Matthew Bulgo, Peta Cornish in "Play" Credit: Pallasca Photography
Matthew Bulgo, Peta Cornish, Neal McWilliams in "Silence" Credit: Pallasca Photography

The Other Room made a statement by kicking off its inaugural season, a little under a year ago, with a bruising production of Sarah Kane’s controversial Blasted. It begins its second season proper, dubbed Insomnia, equally boldly, taking on two undisputed giants of 20th century theatre.

Harold Pinter publicly acknowledged his debt to Samuel Beckett on a number of occasions (and even performed in a memorable television production of his Catastrophe, directed by fellow genius David Mamet). Double bills of their work are, however, surprisingly rare. Here, the company present two compact three-handers which both see their protagonists pondering past, unfortunate love affairs.

In Beckett’s Play, directed by Kate Wasserberg, the three protagonists sit in grey urns, facing the audience, with only their heads visible. Matthew Bulgo plays M, with Peta Cornish as W1, his wife, and Victoria John, W2, his mistress.

In near darkness and underscored by Dyfan Jones’s menacingly rumbling soundscape, each tells his/her story of the love triangle, speaking at ridiculous speed, although with Coward-esque wit and elegance. This is a challenge not only for the actors, but also for the lighting tech, who has to be quick on the draw, since each character only continues his or her fractured monologue when spot-lit—hats off to lighting designer Katy Morison.

The impression is that the man and women are trapped together in a kind of Purgatory. We only hear the tale twice, but are left in no doubt that these are lost souls who are condemned to relive the hell through which they put one another over and over again. The performances are, aside from the occasional humanising stumble, flawless; and the result is both moving and surprisingly funny.

Following the interval, the performance area is radically re-configured (this is becoming something of a company trademark). For Pinter’s Silence, Amy Jane Cook’s set is an enclosed white space in which the characters are free to move around, although they are as trapped in their unhappy memories as are Beckett’s. Jones’s sound design this time is more naturalistic, at least initially, evoking rural and urban settings, before doominess sets in.

Bulgo returns as country gent Rumsey, with Cornish as the fragile-looking Ellen; they are joined by Neal McWilliams whose Bates is a gruff Northern Irishman. Pinter’s dialogue is self-consciously poetic, as the three reminisce, occasionally interacting. There is (unless I missed something) no suggestion that Ellen’s relationships with the two men are contemporaneous; we are left in no doubt, however, that they ended unhappily, since all three are ruminating in dissatisfied solitude.

The Beckett play is inevitably the more memorable, if only for its stylistic audacity. Director Titas Halder, however, points up the subtlety and sensitivity of the Pinter piece, leaving the audience as reflective as the regretful lovers.

This is an inspired pairing from an ambitious and accomplished company and, clocking in at around 70 minutes including interval, provides more food for thought than many an overwrought epic. There was a full house on press night—one sincerely hopes that this will be repeated throughout the run.

Reviewer: Othniel Smith