I’ve never felt the urge to distill the wealth of skills behind any practice – artistic or otherwise – into one handy cut-out-and-keep reference sheet. But when I first moved to London, drawn into the heady pit of Zone 1 by the boozy aroma of a thespian networking night in central London, someone told me something very stark about “Good Directing” that, despite that fourth glass of wine, remained stubbornly lodged within my mind.
“Good Directing is all about the cohesion,” began this Sage of Soho, whose name, like so much else from that period, escapes me. “When a Good Director has been involved, you’ll notice that all of the actors clock in to the same play.” And so I began to see “Good Direction”, in all its straight-backed, inverted comma’d prestige, as the antithesis to mixed-media art. Good Direction wasn’t a Rauschenberg, ripe in junkyard glory and bits of newspaper. Good Direction was a neat picture, diligently put together using a brand-new pack of Berol felt tip pens.
And, flawed though it sounds, this rule hasn’t often let me down – until it did. Last Friday.
Ian Rickson’s take on Harold Pinter’s sixty year old play is a directorial masterpiece, made with the textural variation of a trolley dash through Cass Art. Throughout, six high-calibre actors tussle their way through this stifling drama, igniting the claustrophobic banality of Pinter’s everyman world. Power is thrown so vividly from character to character, splashed onto each scene with an unmissable brashness, it could be a material in its own right.
But while the notion of power is truly omnipresent, each application of authority doesn’t loiter around for long; rather, Rickson and his champion cast work to constantly tilt the balance of power, each character consistently plucking at the shape of control. Depending on the scene, the owner of the power could be a mother, a provider, a child or a stranger. The power could spring from sex appeal or violence, sensory deprivation or stupidity. It could be achieved through regimented, rehearsed control – or it could, perversely, spring from the creature who, in his pathetic nature, demands the doting attentions of others.
And, while all six characters tussle through the scenes, it’s in the exchanges between Zoë Wanamaker’s oppressively doting Meg, Toby Jones’ brattish Stanley and Stephen Mangan’s formidable Goldberg that the oscillations of power chime with the most precision. Urgently inquisitive – but seemingly unable to apply logic to a single word that she hears – boardinghouse owner Meg swallows every lie and exaggeration detonated by her lodger, as long as it maintains her cherished myth of maternal bliss. Towards Stanley, she coos, shrieks and flirts, treading the delicate line between mother and seductress – getting too close to her lodger, while harbouring the paradoxical delusion that he will be inclined (and able!) enough to carve out enough space between them to embark on a pursuit. ‘Do you ever ask yourself who exactly you are talking to?’ spits Jones’ character – shattering, in just one question, both of her fantasy roles.
While Meg’s agenda is clearly that of a woman striving to meet society’s expectations, Toby Jones’ Stanley derives the bulk of his unorthodox power from the kind of recklessness only an outsider can cultivate. The Stanley of Rickson’s production communicates in monosyllabic barks and, like a grouchy toddler, boasts the forthright nature of someone who has no use for good grace. It is this stubborn waywardness that briefly shields him from the menacing demands of the two men who intrude on his improvised family life. In refusing to subscribe to their conventional games, Stanley, with his high claims and tall tales, lets us know that everyone, when subject to the right slice of the whip, can become an underdog.
And then, armed with a shower of bulleted aphorisms, Stephen Mangan’s uncompromising Goldberg strikes his attempt at power. Mangan is mobile and meaningful, every hunch is measured to show his dormant energy; if, with one ankle resting on the knee of his opposite leg, he looks calm, it is because he knows of nothing to fear. He is cocksure, shouting out his life experience like a market trader touting wares. His aggressive utterances, crude and licentious, float across the space like the coverlines of a lads’ mag. Goldberg’s eventual victory is complete, however, as he converts Stanley into a malleable, gurgling soul with big, wondrous eyes and a look of naïve expectation. Goldberg here hasn’t just taken control of Stanley; in rendering the lodger babyish, he has overpowered Meg by transforming her all-too-implausible goal into his own all-too-easily-accomplished reality.
While the dynamism of this production lies in how things so frequently switch, there’s a pounding pessimism in how they invariably return. Once the birthday party is over, the boarding-house goes back to how it was – the only evidence of any disturbance being yesterday’s paper in the hearth and a broken gift in the corner. As Stanley exits, the Quay Brothers’ expansively dingy set opens up to the high lighting and heightened composition of a Biblical painting – but what follows for the overthrown Meg provides nothing worth framing. Rather, it is a return to humdrum, unfulfilled, childless domesticity: Corn Flakes, barking dogs and the inescapable isolation of being a powerless character in someone else’s play.
The Birthday Party is on until 14 April 2018 at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Click here for more details.