Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The Birthday Party , MTC, June 24 ***1/2

The Birthday Party 
By Harold Pinter, Melbourne Theatre Company
 Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre, June 24 to August 1, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on
Stars: ***1/2

The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter’s first full-length play, was written in his youth in 1958, but it established Pinter’s idiosyncratic style. 

Although it is not the best of his plays, it has all his hallmarks: barely masked violence, male aggression, tense pauses that heighten both the comedy and menace; sudden changes of topic and comic non-sequiturs in his dialogue; and the sense that his characters are trapped in a claustrophobic environment. He may have loathed the term, but Pinter was already “Pinteresque”.

Julian Meyrick’s production captures the threatening atmosphere and the playful silliness of the script. Pauline Whyman is particularly delightful as Meg, the child-like landlady who asks only for a simple compliment for her Corn Flakes and fried bread.

Gregory Fryer plays Meg’s husband, Petey, with a quiet and obliging air. The pair runs a boarding house by the sea with only one lodger. When Isaac Drandic, as the secretive Stanley, first appears for his breakfast, the trio engages in teasing banter. But Stanley’s acerbic retorts and lack of courtesy to Meg provide a hint of impending darkness.

And danger is looming. Two thugs arrive to take a room for the night and it is clear that they are here for Stanley. Meyrick’s production shifts positions at this point. Stanley is afraid, the atmosphere becomes ominous, Louise McCarthy’s heavy, grey interior looms and Darrin Verhagen’s music becomes unsettling.

Marshall Napier is chilling as Goldberg, the smug boss thug. He is a bragger, an abuser, a smiling villain who steps through the door, taking control like a Mafia boss. Glenn Shea, as his offsider McCann is the muscle of the duo, and he has the bulk and the scent of violence of a killer. The two embody the simmering brutality inherent in this play.

Meyrick’s production explores the variations in rhythm of Pinter’s dialogue and narrative, shifting pace rapidly and changing gears frequently between comedy and drama. The rhythm falters a little in the second half but rights itself by the end of the play.

The setting is moved from coastal England to Australia and the casting of indigenous actors accented this choice. Initially the casting appeared to be what is known as “colour-blind”, but there was a fleeting reference to aboriginal language in McCann’s poem. The play didn’t need it. The actors spoke for themselves.

By Kate Herbert

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