“The Birthday Party” is sixty years young. Harold Pinter’s first full-length play might be showing its age here and there, but it still seems more punk than it does pensionable. At least, it does when done well — and director Ian Rickson’s starry anniversary revival (with Toby Jones, Stephen Mangan and Zoe Wanamaker, among others) is done very well indeed. It’s a jangling, unsettling, destabilizing watch — and one that still manages to chime with the times.
“The Birthday Party” famously confounded the critics on its first outing in 1958, many mistaking its artful ambiguity for willful obscurity, but watching Rickson’s fine-tuned production, you start to sympathize with them. Halfway through, you seem to succumb to double vision. The play starts to blur and its characters seem to contain contradictions — or do they? Nothing entirely adds up, none of it’s quite clear, and then, having bamboozled your brain, Pinter starts shredding your nerves. You leave a little less certain of the way of the world. At long last, you think, Pinter done properly.
Set in a shoddy guest house on England’s sleepy south coast, “The Birthday Party” slowly swells into an unlikely, unstable thriller. Stanley — a bed-headed brainiac played by Jones — has lived here for a year in the guise of a concert pianist, rarely leaving the house, nor apparently needing a job. He’s mothered by its simplistic, pliable owner Meg (Zoe Wanamaker) and let be by her husband Petey (Peter Wight), a deckchair attendant, but something or other smells off — his contempt for his hosts perhaps, or his pajama top shirt. His twitchiness when two men turn up in town confirms it. What’s he got to hide?
Pinter might ask: What have any of us? The point is there’s no getting away; no matter how far he’s come (all the way to the sea), how low-key his lodgings and how well he’s covered his tracks, his past has caught up with him. As Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s McCann and Mangan’s Goldberg glide into the guest house with Cheshire Cat grins, Stanley freezes to the spot. The organization has tracked its target down — but why, and who, and what and how?
Rickson frames each half with an image of idle destruction: Stanley watching a flame eat through a match, McCann tearing a newspaper into thin strips. That wantonness reaches out into the rest, and the two new arrivals toy with their victim as they break him right down. For all their outward civility, their slick hair and spick suits, Goldberg and McCann take a dead-eyed delight in snapping his spirit — almost without laying a finger on him. Vaughan-Lawlor prowls the room like a panther poised to pounce, while Mangan fires his quickfire questions like a cardsharp shuffling at speed: “Is the number 846 possible or necessary?”
Rickson directs with a keen eye for detail, and splinters of dialogue lodge whole new suspicions. Wanamaker’s low sigh about “some lovely afternoons in that room” — Stanley’s — suggests the two have shared a bed as well as breakfast, beneath him though it seems, while Wight’s controlled contempt for his wife suggested he’s hiding something too.
Against that precision, Rickson embraces the inexplicable, be it the impromptu whistle-off between Stanley and McCann, or the sexual hum of Goldberg inviting his partner to blow in his mouth. True, some lines creak, and some moments go for broke, but there’s no denying that Pinter tapped into something. When Rickson keys into the play’s icy rhythms, he instills the action with this shrill, silent tension — a stand-off so strained it feels like a coiled spring. It’s pure potential energy, a sprung trap ready to snap; fingernails down blackboard stuff. Everything’s eerie — the scrape of a chair across floorboards, the five whisky bottles laid out in a row. If the Quay Brothers just overdo the aesthetic of gothic-on-sea — too much peeling wallpaper, too many burnished mirrors — then Hugh Vanstone’s queasy natural lighting works like a dream.
Yet what makes this “Birthday Party” all the more menacing isn’t the active threat in the room — the total control Goldberg and McCann exert over Stanley — it’s the unspoken power that hangs over the whole. That the organization can track Stanley down is terrifying enough, that Wight leaves the faint suspicion that he’s in the know is quietly horrifying. He lets Petey’s convenient absence linger — a chess match, he says — and his concern the next day opens the possibility he knows what’s gone on. What hold, you wonder, does the organization have on him?
Because it has one on everyone — Mangan makes that quite clear. Even as he goes to town on his target, you see him clock that he could easily be next. Step out of line and Stanley’s fate, as a former organization man, could be his own. That’s what’s bone-chilling, how powerless these men are and how oblivious the women. Pinter’s organization echoes our own surveillance state, its wariness of whistle blowers and its conspiratorial control. The system, in the end, could chew any of us up.