The Hothouse – August 2007

Experience: 7/10

By Harold Pinter

Directed by Ian Rickson

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Friday 31st August 2007

This was a real treat. We were up in London for other reasons this weekend, and got to see an evening performance at the National. Wow. I suspected the atmosphere would be different from matinees, and it certainly seemed to be – more lively, more of a buzz.

I hadn’t seen this play before, and I found it very typical of Pinter’s style, though clearly dated. It shows a version of Stalinist Russia, where people disappear and odd things happen, and the person in charge has to watch their back in case their second-in-command wants to take over. A bit like a Klingon ship, but less overt.

The set was a series of angled walls, which gave us Roote’s office, a staff room, and a wider view including the stairs with another room above. The décor was very fifties/sixties institutional drab. The plot was simple – a patient has died and another patient has given birth. Everybody skirts around these facts, and one of the junior members of staff is tortured to confess to being the father. Eventually, Roote (Stephen Moore) is bumped off and Gibbs (Finbar Lynch), as the last man standing, takes over the institution. There’s also a woman member of staff, Miss Cutts (Lia Williams), who seems to spend all her time latching on to whichever man is in power to ensure her safety, and Lush (Paul Ritter), the only other member of staff who could stand against Gibbs, but who seems to be on the downward slope.

What I enjoyed most about this production was the wonderful language. Pinter has a musical way with words. He finds not just a minor key, but a menace key, and manages to keep it going. It’s partly what’s not said that does it. There’s also a lovely use of repetition, when Gibbs is sort of informing Roote about the two patients (two digits are transposed, hence the confusion), the one who’s died and the one who’s given birth. The dialogue is virtually identical, with some details changed to suit the different circumstances, but otherwise it’s a straightforward reprise. Until the end, that is, when after plying Gibbs with lots of descriptive statements about the woman, Roote ends up saying “Never met her!”.

There’s also a lot of silence and stillness in this production, which are very effective. In addition, there were some wonderfully menacing sound effects, a susurration of suffering, which made the staff nervous and suggested the unrest growing in the asylum. Lovely stuff, and I’m glad we could fit it in.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Absurdia – August 2007

8/10

By: N F Simpson/Michael Frayn

Directed by: Douglas Hodge

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 30th August 2007

This was a combination of three plays, the first two by N F Simpson, and the third by Michael Frayn, each revelling in the absurdist style. Before the first play, a group of bowler-hatted suits brought on the furniture. The set was the wall of a room, with some shelves, a window, a door and a rectangular floor surrounded by gravel. There were net curtains at the window and flowery wallpaper on the wall. Above, the A-shape of the roof topped it all. Otherwise, the set was bare until the furniture arrived.

One of the suited gentlemen (a couple were actually ladies) was played by John Hodgkinson, one of the actors. I assume the others were stage crew. They brought on a small table with a radio on it, another small table with a telephone, a bigger table and a couple of chairs, and a wastepaper basket. Then, when everything was in order, John Hodgkinson announced “There will now be an interval.” Much laughter.

The first play, A Resounding Tinkle, was an edited version of the full text, though we didn’t know this at the time. It deals with the concerns of a couple who find the elephant they ordered has arrived while they were out, and it’s much too large this year. They wanted a smaller elephant, but as they weren’t in when it was delivered they couldn’t tell the delivery men to take it back. A neighbour has had a similar problem – her snake is too small. There’s a lot of discussion of what they’re going to do, and some repeated dialogue, which creates a lovely sense of unreality. They also have a visit from Uncle Ted, who’s moved on from an interest in motorbikes and gone for a sex change instead. Few people would have an Uncle Ted with such a perfect female body, yet they take it all in their stride. After a few refreshing lines of literature to help him perk up, Uncle Ted joins them in listening to the service on the radio – a wonderful spoof of a church service with nonsense lines and responses. Then Uncle Ted has to leave to get his train back, and they’re left with the elephant/snake problem. They agreed to swap with their neighbour, but end up with a matchbox-sized snake. The wife is also wrapping raffia round a wire-frame light shade in her spare moments.

I enjoyed this enormously. I love the absurdist way of taking normal conventions and structures, and putting in absurd content. The performances were excellent, and established recognisable character types, even if the details were well crazy.

After this part, and once the actors were clear of the stage, the back wall of the house was let down on wires, and we could see a similar back wall but decorated differently. The playlet this time was Gladly Otherwise, a short piece which dealt with the visit of an official-looking man (John Hodgkinson, still in bowler hat and suit) to check up on the couple’s knobs – door knobs, that is, plus any other knobs they might have. The husband sat in a corner reading the paper, mostly screened by the door, while the official spoke with the wife. It was over fairly quickly, and was an enjoyable snippet, with some good lines. Again, excellent performances.

For the final piece, The Crimson Hotel, the rest of the house came down, and we had a relatively bare set. The idea of this play was that a writer of French farces, knowing that taking his lover to a hotel will inevitably bring her husband to the same hotel and even to the same room, has taken his mistress-to-be to a completely deserted space – nothing around for miles – in order to seduce her. Of course, she’s perfectly willing to be seduced, but finds the great outdoors a bit disconcerting. As she’s the leading actress in his latest play, they play around with the emptiness, pretending to open doors and check in wardrobes, and find the door actually squeaks! When one of them turns the light out, they can’t see. Finally, as they settle onto the bed/rug, they glimpse a figure in the distance – her husband! After calculating they don’t have enough time for nooky and getting dressed again afterwards so they can pretend complete innocence before he gets there, they run about trying to find somewhere to hide. Eventually, they end up in the small case they brought the picnic in, while we hear the voices of the husband and his lover, another actress in the company.

This really was absurd, and excellently so. The intermingling of French farce and the absurdist style worked brilliantly together, and I loved the combination of logic and nonsense. The miming was good fun, and there was also lots of repetition, as they went through the lines of the play. Lots of echoes and layers. The performances were, yet again, excellent, and my only complaint was that it took less than two hours for the lot. Wonderful fun.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me