Theatre Royal Bath
York Theatre Royal
Jamie Glover’s lauded revival of Pinter’s 1965 masterpiece comes to the end of its tour at the York Theatre Royal. The production is as sure-footed as you might hope to see, with a precise, spiteful control that’s equal to Pinter’s own.
The show opens with a throb of noise and a short tableau emerging from and resolving into darkness, a motif which is used throughout to punctuate and elevate the sense of eerie threat. Keith Allen’s Max is revealed as an impatient, overbearing father to Lenny (Mathew Horne), Joey (Geoffrey Lumb) and prodigal son Teddy (Sam Alexander); Allen stumps around on his cane, barking repeated orders, questions and insults. Completing the household is Max’s brother, Sam (Ian Bartholomew), a much milder-mannered chauffeur who bears the sharp end of Max’s vicious banter with a greater forbearance than the others.
The opening scene sets the pace, with Horne passively absorbing Max’s ire, before spitting back insults of his own with a viciousness that forebodes physical consequences. Horne and Allen both evidence impeccable timing and an ability to flicker between sweetness and acid in an instant, but the fact that this is established from the opening does not mean that it becomes pat. The play has lost none of its ability to arouse both laughter at its hairpin turns and gasps of nervous shock. Allen and Horne are singled out here, but the whole cast is faultless, riding the text’s oddities and aggression with superb control.
At one point, Teddy asks, "what do you think of the room? Big, isn’t it?" and Liz Ashcroft’s design seems inspired by this line, emphasising the surrealist scale of the drama that unfolds within this larger-than-life household. The décor and trimmings provide a perfectly tuned environment, with Johanna Town’s lighting and Max Pappenheim’s sound design also adding to the well-calibrated atmosphere. As the front door opens, traffic noise and daylight are permitted in, but only temporarily in what is otherwise an enclosed—and possibly inescapable—crucible of experience.
Pinter famously rejected attempts to ascribe meaning to his work, seeing such efforts as futile or even facile. "I can sum up none of my plays… except to say 'That is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.'" While his later work took furious aim at the violence meted out by state institutions, this early piece is characteristic in paying Absurdist attention to the detail of everyday language to lay bare the violence behind institutions of the family and wider society, especially that of men against each other and, to startling effect, against women.
For into this all-male household, Teddy returns, bringing with him his new wife, Ruth (Shanaya Rafaat). Teddy is a ‘Doctor of Philosophy’, an occupation that hovers between veneration and scorn in the eyes of his estranged father. Ruth, however, is the catalyst for the play’s most appalling Absurdist moves. Passive, motherly, ‘whorish’, obedient, domineering: the character demands multitudes, all of which Rafaat contains with a remarkable poise and power. Her performance—and, again, those of the whole cast—puts not a foot wrong. In a very literal sense: this is a production with a poised geometric choreography to match that of Last Year at Marienbad.
The discomfort felt by the audience is often palpable. We are used to reinterrogating the politics of dead white male writers, and questioning the value of restaging their works, but this is a different proposition altogether. The language used, the violence (whether described or actual), is not merely the product of a different, unreconstructed time. It is a visceral laying bare and symbolising of the poison of toxic masculinity that persists in society to this day. Whether this play is the most apt way to address such political questions today will be answered differently by each audience member. What can be said is that the cast, director and designer have produced a near note-perfect rendition of what is an indisputably powerful work, and one whose power resides specifically in the liveness of the event—the opportunity to experience it in company with fellow theatre-goers whose tensions and reliefs are skilfully manipulated by a playwright and company in full control.
Early in proceedings, Lenny roars at his father, "you know what, you’re getting demented". It’s one of so many casual cruelties, of course, but also symptomatic of Pinter’s (and his characters’) very specific uses of language, and by the end we may be tempted to take it literally. In a sense, this is what the play feels like: the fever dream of a dying patriarchy, losing control of its faculties.
A stunningly realised production of a masterwork, then, albeit one whose mastery consists in large part of an uneasily—and deliberately ambiguously—negotiated peace, between delighting in and decrying the various appalling violences it represents.
Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith