The Birthday Party and other late thoughts ~ theatre notes

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Birthday Party and other late thoughts

I briefly reviewed Julian Meyrick's MTC production of The Birthday Party just over two weeks ago and have been meaning to write about it at more leisure ever since. That I haven't yet done so is symptomatic of (a) the time of year - it's flu season here in Williamstown, and various microbes have been doing a serial dance through the family home - and (b) the difficulty I'm having balancing the conflicting demands of my increasingly chaotic life. So this is a brief cathartic visit to some thoughts that have been irritating the delicate membranes of my synapses over the past fortnight.

Another reason for the delay was that I wanted to watch the 1968 William Friedkin film of The Birthday Party. Thanks to the magic of Amazon, it arrived last week. The screenplay was adapted by Pinter himself, and it features a great cast, with Robert Shaw in the central role of Stanley, Patrick Magee and Sydney Tafler as the mysterious strangers McCann and Goldberg, Dandy Nichols as the naive landlady Meg and Moultriie Kelsall as her husband, Petey. It's very much a film of its time - some of its special effects are worthy of YouTube - and it's obviously made with a budget of around $2. But it remains an astounding film.

It's not, by any means, comfortable family viewing. You watch it all the way through with your stomach in a knot, unease growing with the slow inevitability of nightmare as the play's banal but obscurely threatening situations unfold. What these performances do so beautifully is to demonstrate the startling dislocations of Pinter's dialogue, how he violently wrenches language from its emotional subtext. The story of the film is not in what is said, but what is going on in the actors' faces: the fear in Nichols' face as Shaw suddenly turns on her, asking if she knows who he is; Shaw's seemingly irrational terror when the two men appear in the miserable boarding house where he has been living for the past year; Magee's hesitation and fear in the face of Tafler's smoothly civilised violence.

It's not the notorious Pinteresque Pause that matters here; it's what going on underneath the language, which may indeed flower into silence, but equally occurs in the estrangement of the dialogue. The fact that Pinter's name is practically synonymous with the Pause has always faintly baffled me: other playwrights (and not only Beckett) have used pauses, which act as the writerly equivalent of musical notation, an indicator of linguistic and emotional rhythm. So why should Pinter's be so controversial? But those who wish to belittle his achievement for whatever reason - political disagreement, artistic hostility - always refer to the Pause, which is I guess a way of eliding the fact that he actually wrote a lot of words in between his silences.

It strikes me that this discomfort with Pinter's pauses reflects a wider cultural response to silence. We don't know what to do with it: we have to fill it up with noise, as if silence is a yawning abyss that threatens to devour our souls. I've noticed this especially when watching anime: the master of the medium, Hayoa Miyazake, uses silence beautifully in his carefully constructed soundtracks. But if in error I put on the dubbed versions instead of the subtitled Japanese soundtrack, suddenly all that fertile, evocative silence disappears under a welter of music and dialogue.

And it also reflects a cultural discomfort with, well, discomfort itself. Have we such a terrible fear of ourselves, of what might emerge if we are forced to contemplate the realities that underlie the camouflaging gabble of language, that we literally can't face it?

Which brings me to Julian Meyrick's production, now running at the Fairfax Studio in the Arts Centre. I think this is a perfectly respectable and intelligent production of the play, which in many ways brings a contemporary vitality to The Birthday Party. Meyrick has cast it mainly with Indigenous actors, in a rare and welcome example of main stage cross-racial casting. Smartly, he has avoided obvious racial power relationships: power and disempowerment reside in every character. The single white actor is Marshall Napier, a man of slippery identity, who is the locus of hidden but palpable violence. Goldberg's Irish sidekick McCann is played by Glenn Shea, his Irish song replaced by an Aboriginal chant. (This subtly draws an interesting parallel between the colonisation of Ireland and Australia). And I was particularly taken by Pauline Whyman's beautiful portrayal of Meg, the naif whose fantasy world almost completely protects her from the sharp edges of reality.

But - and for me it is a large but - there was something missing in the middle of the play. It was characterised by Isaac Drandic's performance of Stanley, which I am guessing, having never seen Drandic in action before, was a directorial decision. And perhaps - not having seen it again, I don't know - this performance has evolved from opening night. On the night I saw it, Drandic was a blank: he responded catatonically, with none of the repressed violence so characteristic of Shaw's performance in the film. This gives the performance nowhere to go, since in the final scene he really is catatonic; because he has been emotionally blank from the beginning, his inability to speak is much less devastating. And it neutralises many of the exchanges in the play, as Stanley is always a passive victim.

This sense of soft-focus permeates the tone of the whole production: the squalor of the boarding house, physically palpable in the details of Friedkin's film, is here rendered with a respectable cleanliness. There are moments of sudden brutality, moments of discomfort, but instead of winding slowly up to a kind of stomach-twisting panic, they dissipate in comic relief. It's too easy in this production to read The Birthday Party as a kind of surreal comedy about "those" kinds of people - lower middle class, Not Like Us - because its real power, its merciless exposure of the dark animal impulses in human behaviour, is muffled. The sense of interior nightmare never takes hold where it counts, in the primitive caverns of the subconscious.

The performances and direction bring out the absurd comedy of Pinter's language, which is in itself no bad thing. Like Beckett, Pinter is full of comedy: also like Beckett, he is also deadly serious, and laughter is only sometimes on the menu. Discovering that a playwright is funny shouldn't, as regularly happens with Chekhov, elide the tragedy that drives the drama. As I watched it, I thought of Howard Barker's stern comments about laughter in the theatre. "Laughter appears to be a manifestation of solidarity," he says, "but it is now more often the sign of subordination. It is pain that an audience needs to experience, and not contempt. We have a theatre of contempt masquerading as comedy".

I think Australian theatre is not arrogant enough to generate the contempt Barker speaks of. Rather, the impulse towards comedy reflects a different kind of subordination. It seems to me to be a fear of the audience, a fear that they will not get it, a fear that if they do, they won't like it anyway. Who, after all, wants pain? And in this fear we lose the larger possibilities of art, its paradoxical exhilaration and joy.

There is, alas, good reason for these fears, as the conversation after my review of The Man from Mukinupin - probably the MTC production I've enjoyed most this year - demonstrates all too clearly. And certainly, the production of The Birthday Party has been warmly received; indeed, it's been welcomed almost with relief, as if a visit to the dentist defied expectations by serving up chocolates instead. But I can't help pondering the value of presenting Pinter in a prophylactic, with all the danger at a comfortable remove. On the one hand, yes, there's more chance of attracting an audience to the work of a playwright generally considered "difficult". But on the other, what is the point, really?

Note: for more discussion of the play, you can find an earlier TN review of a production of The Birthday Party here.

Picture: (from left) Jada Alberts, Marshall Napier and Isaac Drandic in the MTC's production of The Birthday Party.


4 Coffins said...

Interesting comments Alison - for me the indigenous casting and its lack of obvious justification created its own crisis that counters any chocolatey approach to language. Recently I've been considering an extreme position that all Australian theatre should be about correcting history, (mainly spurred by a recent startling wikipedia discovery that there was a significant massacre in my home town) and Meyrick's showing transposes the unsettling feeling of the dialogue onto the casting. Just as we are left to stab haphazardly at the motivations of the characters in the Friedkin film, so are we left to ponder the reasoning behind the casting, or more accurately, should there need to be a reason at all?

Perhaps this could be seen as a cop-out to not engage with the challenges Pinter's language provides? But to me it sat perfectly under the play, like a poised cobra that refused to strike (ensuring that it is still poised after the play's finish).

(For accuracy's sake, I should also point out that the lovely Jada Alberts, who plays Lulu, is an indigenous actor, not white as you say in the post.)

Alison Croggon said...

Aaargh. Thanks for pointing out that error, 4 Coffins, and apologies. I'll correct myself right away.

Yes, I absolutely see your point. It isn't that I feel the production is without virtue, as I hope is clear. At the same time, I was very disappointed. I felt like there was all the architecture for something splendid, but nobody had switched on the lights...

epistemysics said...

While I’m sure there were good intentions behind the casting, the cynic in me can’t help but think that having such a cast gives the production a virtual Bad Review Shield. While a play with all white actors could be heavily criticised with impunity, if the same were to happen to this play, I can envisage the headlines in the paper the next day: “Critic’s Hidden Racism”, “Government Says Sorry But Critics Do Not”, and so on. (Probably this will never happen, but if I thought of it, surely at least one critic out there had it in the back of their mind.)

Then there’s the novelty of it all – unfortunate as it is that it should be seen as a novelty too. But I would think that this feeds right in to the attitudes that some of the middle class holds. Jane Smith can tell her friends over Sunday brunch that “I saw this wonderful play that the natives put on last week!” Not that I’m saying that all the middle class holds these values, but I’m sure some do. And if a novel casting such as this makes Jane Smith sit up and take notice, then the marketing department has earned their pay, yes? Coming up next in the season: “four transgender, disabled, indigenous, asylum seeking, reformed terrorists in a brave new production of Waiting for Godot.” (Obviously I’m exaggerating here. Although think about how interesting it might be if only Lucky had those characteristics...)

I haven’t seen the play, though, so take my opinions with a grain of salt. But there could be some shrewd marketing behind it. After all, we’re talking about it, aren’t we? Then again, a purpose of art is to challenge people, which usually generates discussion, so I suppose you could ask whether the casting choice is good marketing or good art. If the answer is good art, then I wonder whether Pinter and the themes of the play have been sidelined in favour of making a point about indigenous people in the theate? (Perhaps contributing to the sense of distance you felt?)

Again, though – haven’t seen the play. I have some grains of salt spare if you need them.

Born Dancin' said...

Who is dubbing the casting of The Birthday Party 'novelty'? Criticising the assumed middle-class/brow theatre audience often betrays the middle-class/brow voice of the critic. I don't think many people who saw this show took its casting as cheap tokenism. The politics were subtle but potent, and it's a rare marketing department that controls the casting process.

Some of the most powerful works I've seen in recent years have been delivered by transgendered, disabled or indigenous performers, and I'm not too keen to see these lumped into the same basket. Don't get me wrong, epistemysics, I very much enjoy your blog posts, but this comment smacks of projection.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi EP and BD (very euphonious)... I really don't think the cross-racial casting is an issue here, in any negative way I mean. It's the most interesting aspect of the production, it's thoughtfully done so it doesn't cheapen the play or the issues it brings to bear on the text, and it works, not least because it brings a brilliant new energy into the MTC purview. I'm hoping it brings local casting more in line with what goes on routinely, for example, on the BBC, which is light years ahead of us on this question... The idea had - and I guess this is what frustrated me - the possibility of bringing a tough and fresh angle onto Pinter's work. For me it just didn't get there - but it's not because of anything to do with the casting.

epistemysics said...

The only reason I was referring to it as "novelty" was because we are talking about it. We wouldn't be talking about the director choosing an "all-white" cast if an all-white cast had been chosen, would we? (Even if perhaps we should be.)

As for the reasons for the things I said, I was springboarding off 4 Coffin's comment, "for me the indigenous casting and its lack of obvious justification created its own crisis that counters any chocolatey approach to language." And so I threw up a couple of hypothetical scenarios that gave possible non-artistic reasons for the casting choice. If you believe that there was no cheap tokenism going on, then I believe it too - I wasn't trying to suggest that this play was definitely subject to the things I suggested, but that there are things in this world (thankfully a minority) that are. As I said before, I hadn't seen the play, so I can't make that judgement.

Reading my original comment again, though, I can see that I did imply that this play had stooped to such levels - and I didn't mean that. I only meant to suggest that these things are possibilities in general, but I can see that I made it pretty specific (though that wasn't my intention at the time). (And I have to say, I did a pretty crappy job of making it general!)

As for the Godot line, I was trying to give an (in an admittedly poor taste) example - I wasn't suggesting that all such groups descended to cheap tokenism every time they take the stage. I of course don't believe that.

So in closing - such things do happen (rarely), they didn't happen with this play, and humble apologies for any offence caused, and I enjoy your blog posts too!

4 Coffins said...

(I reckon you got into a bit of a hole there EP! I know what you meant though.)

However I don't think an indigenous cast is exactly going to keep the MTC subscribers applauding well into the night... nor do I think it's a "positive image" thing. I think it's a director asking some curly questions.

For me, it adds to the play signifantly and in a way that doesn't bring attention to itself, and I think this is a good decision, even a subversive one. I agree that it falls short of bringing a tough and fresh angle on Pinter's words or themes but I would suggest it does engage with some other forums. Does it bring attention to our own canonising of Pinter, which is perhaps more to do with colonial nostalgia than its inherent value to us? Devil's Advocate: It's a play set on the english seaside, about some British dude who gets kicked by some geezers in between pauses. What does it have to do with us, who sit 10000 miles and 50 years away, watching it???

(I know there are valid answers to this question and I have just insulted a theatre-god, and for that I apologise, on behalf of my devil's advocate)

It might seem all a bit self-defeating (why play Pinter whilst suggesting its irrelevance?) but I think at least this question has been asked, because for many productions it's a given.

Question: Why play Pinter?
Answer: Because it's Pinter!

Not enough.

P.S Curtis' design was reminiscent of a particular building on the great Ocean Road... obscure source? Or just my own fancy?

Alison Croggon said...

There are no gods on my table, 4 Coffins. OK, I tell a lie, there are a couple of statues of Ganesha...

The canonisation of Pinter is a little double edged, I would argue; he's more often cited as a Great Writer so what he does can be safely ignored. The reason I admire Pinter's work isn't because he's a canonical writer. It's because when I read or see his plays they do funny things to my insides.

But the question of "relevance" bothers me. Is it really true that the only things that we can consider relevant must have Australian accents? Do we really have no imagination? If that is the case, how is it possible to read a poem by Sappho, a bint from an obscure Greek island who's been dead for 2500 years, and still feel the hairs prickle on my spine? Does't the true "relevance" of any work lie in its immediate emotional valency, the complexities of its emotional resonances? Why am I asking so many questions? Time for a coffee...

Troubador said...

Going off on a tangent for a second, I picked up a bargain bin copy of William Friedkin's 2006 movie of the Tracy Letts play, Bug. I was a little apprehensive as it had a very mixed critical reception but I think it's one of the most effective play to screen transfers I've ever seen. All the more creditable as 90% of the action takes place in a cheap motel room.

The play was written over ten years before August Osage County and (though I know I'm in the minority here) I believe it has more dramatic and metaphoric power. It also feels more resonant of a post 9/11 US consciousness even though it was written in the 90s.

In light of your reviews of Letts recently and Friedkin in this post, you might be interested in checking it out.

tom said...

Just picking up on Alison's comment that the casting brings some new energy in the MTC purview, my response to the show was that it was the first MTC play for years which lifted out of the smoothly engineered, well-performed, well-made but somehow predictable pack. For me it had the integrated purpose, intensity and political clarity of a really good independent production. I was gripped with excitement throughout the play; by the complete - and for me, successful - re-imagining of the text, by the strangely truthful or truthfully strange realisation of the set and costumes, and by the performances.

I am completely baffled by the responses to Isaac Drandich (including yours, Alison). I have seen him in a couple of previous plays and have always thought of him as a solid and honourable actor. But in The Birthday Party I thought he found something much more exciting. The co-dependent relationship between him and Pauline Wyman's fantastic Meg was creepily fascinating, his helpless suspension in some kind of 'holding pattern' in the first act really struck me as fine and sophisticated creations (credit to Julian Meyrick to, no doubt). And in the party itself I was carried by his sense of utter dread and fury. I don't know where you were sitting but I cannot reconcile your anodyne responses to the production with my experience.

The indigenous cast (other than being a group of fine actors with an unusually strong sense of inner life) gave this show an energy that is to my mind about recognising and activating what is 'hot' or important or full of potential in our culture.

Jake said...

I'll second Troubador's recommendation of Bug. A terrific film. I'd love to see Friedkin's Birthday Party -- it sounds like a perfect match of director and material.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for your comments, Tom. My qualifier on his performance in the piece is because I saw it on opening night (are we speaking of the same performance?) and did wonder if there was a sketch of something going on there that might develop into something else that I couldn't perceive. It was clearly a deliberate choice. But the night I saw it, it really neutralised the play for me. Only one factor, though, among several choices that mitigated the experience.

Thanks Jake and Troubador - I'll look out for Bug! I'd probably agree with you Troubador on the relative merits of AOC and Letts' earlier work.

Anonymous said...

epistemysic, if you must insist on blogging, then learn to write. Because there's no excuse for shitting all over someone and then backpeddling the second you're questioned with "oh, but i didn't mean that". You suck. And for not attending the play whose ideas you're bagging, you suck harder.

Alison Croggon said...

Er... please keep it civilised, guys. Or at least check out the comments policy. Abuse is no substitute for argument, at least here.

epistemysics said...

The vacuuming - that's what I had to do tomorrow! Thanks for reminding me, Anonymous.

But to suggest, as you did, Anonymous, that I was "shitting all over someone" (I assume you meant the play), is a bit much, isn't it? Just because I suggested a possible ulterior motive for the casting (and the casting alone), doesn't mean that I am discarding all the artistic merit in the production. I could, for example, suggest that Cate Blanchett being cast in A Streetcar Name Desire (on later this year by the STC) is a marketing stunt - her celebrity brings in the crowds. That doesn't mean that I'm "bagging" all the play's ideas now, does it? (Besides, I already have a ticket for it. Can't wait!) Please note that I haven't seen that play either, as it hasn't opened yet.

But I have to thank you, Anonymous, for suggesting that I "learn to write". This was indeed part of my goal when I started blogging - to improve my writing skills. Not only that, I review the plays I see to hopefully improve my skills in writing plays! So it is great advice, and you'll be glad to know I've been doing just that for awhile now. I think the day I stop learning to write is the day I stop writing.

Alas, though I can't agree with your character assessment of me, Anonymous, and I think that is one issue we may have to agree to disagree about. I have a question, though: did you see the play, Anonymous, and if so, what did you think about the casting? What point do you think was trying to be made?

tom said...

Hi Alison. Just confirming that I was there on Opening Night too. Same show, very different responses.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Tom. Different responses are what make theatre so interesting. And human!

I had quite bad seats for The Birthday Party, although the corner staging won't have affected my experience of the performances, which I could see all the time; I just couldn't properly see the shape of the mise en scene and design.

I kind of feel I have to defend myself here, for various non-blog reasons. I still think that subduing the violence in The Birthday Party - at both economic and physical levels - is a real problem. Whatever the interpretation, you still have to do the play, and for me an important level of the text was missing. Of course the violence wasn't wholly absent, but the relationship between Meg and Stanley, for instance, lacked that creepy incestuous touch, and also Meg's fear of Stanley.