Preview: The Birthday Party

CTC presents The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter

Penny Babakhani: Why Pinter?

Dom Williams (Director): I actually studied it for A-level, which is kind of a boring answers, but I loved the way he plays around with power and the colloquial – the way he picks up the colloquial language. And the space. I really wanted to put it on in The Empty Shop.

PB: The play was basically ripped apart by critics when it was first performed, but it’s gone on to become a classic of 20th century drama. Why do you think the opinion that people have of the play now is so different to what it was when it first opened.

DW: They didn’t understand it at first.

Harvey Comerford (McCann): It takes quite a lot of time to get used to.

Carrie Gaunt (Meg): I think you can kind of contextualize it now and see it as quite groundbreaking. The dialogue is really true to life, but really absurdist in the same way. It’s absurd in how truthful it is. It doesn’t feel theatrical at all – it feels quite naturalistic. I guess at the time people didn’t know how to react to something like that.

DW: He was definitely ahead of his time.

PB: Irving Wardle described the play as a “comedy of menace”. How do you work on bringing that menace across in your performances? Because there’s obviously the “Pinter Pause” – the silence that’s already built into the play, but what else do you do?

HC: Pinter’s really good at helping actors out, because as you said, it’s all written for you – the clue is in the text. If you adhere to the pauses it comes naturally.

DW: We’re using the space, the stillness of the actors. Within the pauses everyone is keeping very still as any movement in [The Empty Shop] is going to be very noticeable.

CG: And the contrast between that and the characters as well. I’ve characterized Meg as quite scatty and energetic, but with a nervous energy. So there’s that kind of contrast between the solidity of people like McCann and Goldberg, and then Meg.

DW: We’ve also got quite a big contrast between you two [Carrie and Dominic]. Petey’s not menacing, but it’s quite interesting that there are still those pauses.

Dominic McGovern (Petey): The way his character develops throughout is reflective of the increasing sense menace in the play. He realizes as the plays goes on that there is something quite menacing going on in his house.

PB: As you said, the dialogue is very naturalistic but at the same time the whole play is basically based on lies and deceits. How difficult is it to portray characters that are so wrapped up in their lies that you can never really pin down who they are as people?

CG: You’ve got to remember that for the characters, it’s not a lie. It’s absolute reality for them – there are certain things that they just don’t question.

Maurice Samely (Stanley): Everyone has quite a number of fronts to their characters, which we’re working quite hard to bring across. To sign-post subtly how the transfer happens from one projected identity to perhaps something more real, or to another identity, or to another attempt to impose the self on someone else.

HC: You can’t pin [the characters] down because of their multiple identities in that they’ve got different names.

DW: That’s an important distinction between the lies that are actually believed in – like Meg actually truly thinks are real – and the way Stanley, Goldberg and McCann use truth and falsity to their advantage. It’s almost impossible to bring across to the audience the difference between something that’s believed but is not true, and something that is actually a lie.

CG: There are some characters who use words as leverage more than others, like Stanley, McCann and Goldberg.

DW: But then poor Petey is quite simple to understand.

PB: He’s often considered to be the calming, focal point of the play.

DW: The anchor. That was the word we came up with. He’s the sensitive one.

PB: Let’s move on to The Empty Shop, and talk about some of the challenges but also advantages of using a very non-traditional space.

CG: It’s tiny, and we didn’t realize. We’ve been rehearsing in the Assembly Rooms, and we’ve blocked some stuff like the party scene and realized going into The Empty Shop that it was going to be quite challenging.

DW: The movements are so big in the space – even the smallest eye movement is going to be picked up.

PB: You said earlier you really wanted to put a show on in The Empty Shop. What was the reasoning behind that?

DW: It’s claustrophobic. There’s also a really nice walkway, the stairs–

HC: –looks like you’re walking into the boarding house.

CG: It takes away some of the issues of making it look naturalistic because the room’s already there.

DW: We’re hoping to surprise the audience from the minute they cue up.

PB: Is there any one aspect of the Birthday Party or the performance as a whole that you want to be asked about?

MS: I wish you’d asked about the language because I can’t get enough of it. It can be a tool for suppression – torture even – but it can also be quite funny. If you’re watching it, especially some of the McCann and Goldberg rapid interrogation scene, it’s a little bit like music in a way because they pile up the half rhymes.

DW: When they’re interrogating [Stanley], I think that’s going to be quite powerful in the small space. As though they’re interrogating the audience.

PB: Speaking of the audience, three things you want the audience to be thinking when they walk out of the Empty Shop at the end of the performance.

DW: Scared. I really want them to be a bit worried.

MS: I think there can be a hint at the back of the mind that this is really topical perhaps with the Snowden revelations that spying is actually quite widespread, even in your own country.

CG: But they should enjoy it as well. When they’re laughing, they should feel quite guilty about it because you’re enjoying it but also thinking: “what’s going to come next?”

DW: We want them to walk away with mixed feelings.

For more information about CTC’s The Birthday Party, including performance dates and ticket prices, visit the event page.

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