Harold Pinter did nothing to alleviate the sense of moral confusion or aide any sense of understanding his 1957 play; “The play is itself. It is no other. It has its own life.” In the hand of Blanche McIntyre and a fantastically sharp cast, The Birthday Party doesn’t only have its own life, but a disturbingly direct way of upsetting the audiences.
Presented as you are with a scene of pleasantly mediocre 1950’s domestic comfort, you are soon shifted to uncertainty. As the oppressive ceiling lifts to a heavy and unsettling sound effect, your perceptions and emotions are placed in the position of the ball between the polar opposite elements of theatrical pong!
And things only get more unsettling. Taking full advantage of the round at The Royal Exchange, the whole play exists within the dining and sitting room of Meg & Petey’s jaded guesthouse for which they have only one permanent guest, Stanley. The opening scene shows Petey sit at the table for his breakfast, displaying condiment OCD as he moved and moves again the HP and Heinz into the exact right spot!
Though easily dismissible it is a highly poignant opener that highlights The Birthday Party to be a play of hyper-normality and the averagely-absurd that has you laughing and flinching in equal measure throughout. Every scenario/character/sentence has its counter point, which is guaranteed to tip any sense of real-time understanding you think you have. Very much like reading a novel written in dialect however, your brain quickly, and with rather disturbing ease, shifts into Pinter’s gear and before you know it you are in tune with the surreally straight forward and expecting events to go any way but what you expect.
Pinter said of the play “I take it you would like me to insert a clarification or moral judgment or author’s angle on it, straight from the horses mouth. I appreciate your desire for this but I can’t do it”. It is the fact that such moral obscurity is presented, and sits with such ease into domestic normality that is in itself such a disturbance. Take the Meg and Stanley dynamic; is she mother, lover, landlady, or all of the above. And Stanley, is he baby or abuser? He flits between the two with extreme easy, with Meg, and then exaggeratingly so at the birthday party in question later on!
Similarly Lulu, who we see deliver birthday gifts but then insult the birthday boy, is at the party enamored with Goldberg before Stanley attempts to abuse her! She later snaps back at Goldberg however, reasserting her position. Duality is threaded through every theatrical aspect of this play, none more so than in the Goldberg & McCann pairing.
Exaggerating the play-off of between fear and menace, Goldberg & McCann come in with the purpose of taking Stanley away. Why? We don’t really know. A Jew and an Irish former priest, this couple represent both organized religions and a race and nationality usually persecuted yet they come in with full power to change the shape of the world as The Birthday Party see it. Suited and sharp they work with an air of political authority. A striking, creepy and humorous duo they usurp reality with intensity and ease and nobody can really do anything about it. Or at least they don’t.
A cross between Last Of The Summer Wine, if it were set in Albert Square, and League of Gentlemen on a grim day
Stanley is vocally attacked within an inch of his life, his glasses broken, he can neither see what is happening or voice a single word or resistance being reduced to a mere “bllleeeuuu” desperate utterance.
The Birthday Party is like a cross between Last Of The Summer Wine, if it were set in Albert Square, and League of Gentlemen on a grim day! It is both very funny and very disturbing because it very much reflects life’s surreal reality! The Royal Exchange has done the play full justice and Blanch McIntyre has directed an excellently sharp cast who pull you through events with wit and weirdness. One to see for certain; if you can bear the laughter and the wincing, and the confusing comfort of the two.
All images © Jonathan Keenan