On my way to The Little Theatre last night, for The Mechanicals opening of Harold Pinter‘s The Birthday Party, I flashed back to a most amazing memory. I remember it being a Saturday night; I was still at high school, and SABC 1, 2 and 3 were called something else (anyone remember what?), when Yvonne Banning, the continuity announcer, introduced one of her favourite plays and playwrights, Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. I remember being absolutely blown away. It was my first introduction to the play and his work and it was like watching a completely absurd horror movie that I hardly understood but loved.
That set up quite an expectation for me last night, which is a bit unfair since I am twenty five years older and have been through all the Pinter pieces that we did for our end of year auditions at drama school. Still, there was that feeling. And Chris Weare directing! (who probably taught me all I know about Pinter anyway).
The minute I saw the set I got it. That Pinter feeling. And certainly, when it started, with the wordless (and super talented and versatile) Scott Sparrow in the light, I shivered. Unfortunately, that menace, tension and confusion was quickly dissipated and never really came back. Oh the cast were good(ish), but they never really cracked it, and as I left the theatre I was trying to work out why.
So here are some of my thoughts. I think with Pinter you need a very long and focused rehearsal process and I think it’s possible the piece was under rehearsed. This means that the moments, the famous Pinter pauses, the bleakness and most importantly the savage menace were lost. I love the idea of a repertory company, and I’m even very jealous that I’m not part of one. I love the idea of the different seasons of work that a rep company can put on, but I do think that with a Pinter you need to give the piece proper, long rehearsal time. In a rep company actors are forgiven for being a bit too young, or not exactly 100% natural choices for the part, but then they have to work doubly hard to get it right.
Here, accents were dodgy, characters didn’t sit and stay, and the whole piece didn’t behave itself. Except for Nicholas Pauling, who stood out for me as absolutely brilliant. He is Pinter weird, darkly powerful and really, really good.
I think this piece will get better later in the run. But I would like to see it with about a month’s more detailed rehearsal time.