Pinter’s plays do not date. They don’t because there is artistic merit in the absurd.
As with the wild humour of the plays of Aristophanes, the bleak laughs of Beckett, the guffaws of Alfred Jarry and the comic dread of Edward Albee, humanity has no option but to laugh – and recoil – at the absurdity of life.
This is the appeal of Pinter’s The Birthday Party.
After spending a year as the sole tenant in a run-down boarding house, Stanley played by Isaac Drandic is jolted out of his moribund existence upon the arrival of two well-dressed middle-aged men.
They are on business, although the nature of their business is unknown. They may be government agents, or representatives of big business.
They may be associated with a religious organisation or part of a private investigative operation. We never find out, and it doesn’t manner. What does matter is how these men proceed to break down Stanley.
The great British playwright and critic, David Hare, wrote that “Pinter did what W.H. Auden said a poet should do, he cleaned the gutters of the English language, so that it ever afterwards flowed more easily and more cleanly.”
The sharp verbal interplay and menacing atmosphere drives Pinter’s first full-length play to the edge.
The interrogation is unsettling and disturbing for Stanley and the audience. The audience searches for clues in the words, gestures, mannerisms, ticks, and long pauses.
The most disappointing aspect of Merick’s direction relates to his attempt to renovate the canon. As he put it in a recent interview, “I am trying to rescue Pinter from the Pinteresque.
You have to cut through the layers of inherited irony and all the copies of copies of copies in order to reconnect with a young man’s play.” And it is for this reason that the production slightly misses the mark.
Merick takes the play out of its original seaside 50s British setting and places it in a contemporary Australian community. Consequently, the play seems out of place and the play lacks authenticity.
The laughs are sparse and the tension wanes at crucial moments. Although Pinter approved of Julian Merick using an all-indigenous cast I frankly couldn’t see the point.
Stephen Curtis’s simple set design is effective in creating a menacing and sinister mood. Matt Scott’s lighting is designed to good effect, especially in the climax to the second Act.
The Melbourne Art centre’s Fairfax Theatre is ideal in recreating the claustrophobic atmosphere of a run-down boarding house.
Goldberg, played by Marshal Napier, makes up for Isaac Drandic’s limp performance, and the Meg character counters the weak and unconvincing Lulu.
Do make the effort to see this interpretation of The Birthday Party. It will provoke, entertain and unsettle you.
The MTC’s production of The Birthday Party runs until August 1 at the Fairfax Studio, the Arts Centre.