Directing The Birthday Party with Michael Cabot
This June at the Belgrade Theatre, we welcome the return of London Classic Theatre to the stage with their production of Harold Pinter’s classic thriller The Birthday Party. Here, Director Michael Cabot discusses finding the hidden motivations behind Pinter’s characters and why he believes his play to be truly groundbreaking.
I directed The Caretaker in 2004 and in 2010. Approaching the play for a second time, I was mindful of the importance of bringing something new to the rehearsal room. The first time round, I had very much seen some of the more unusual passages in the dialogue as inventions or damaged memories. Mick’s speech about his ‘uncle’s brother’ is full of twists and turns, a glorious concoction of seemingly random facts about a male relative, who he concludes ‘married a Chinaman and went to Jamaica’. At first sight, the speech is wholly implausible and one’s natural instinct is to mark Mick down as delusional, a fantasist. But what if we give him the benefit of the doubt? What if Mick is actually telling the truth?
“You remind me of my uncle’s brother. He was always on the move, that man. Never without his passport. Had an eye for the girls. Very much your build. Bit of an athlete. Long jump specialist. He had a habit of demonstrating different run-ups in the drawing room round about Christmas time. Had a penchant for nuts. That’s what it was. Nothing but a penchant. Couldn’t eat enough of them. Peanuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, monkey nuts, wouldn’t touch a piece of fruit cake. Had a marvellous stop-watch. Picked it up in Hong Kong. The day after they chucked him out of the Salvation Army. Used to go in number four for Beckenham Reserves. That was before he got his gold medal.” The Caretaker by Harold Pinter
Rehearsing any play is part investigation, part jigsaw puzzle and always a journey into the unknown. The search for clarity and meaning can take us down many paths, but when the playwright can be maddeningly obscure, where do you begin? On one level, you have to trust the text. For while a character may tell a lie, there is always a purpose behind the untruth. Unless we have a specific reason to disbelieve or to not trust something that a character says, we should try and find the reason for the incongruity or veracity of their words.
In The Birthday Party, many of the characters have a reason to withhold the truth. Stanley is a haunted man. He rarely, if ever, ventures out of Petey and Meg’s ‘boarding house’. His past is uncertain, his memories incomplete, his manner antagonistic. By contrast, Goldberg seems happy to share intimate details of his personal history and family life, assembling a rich cast of characters and experiences. But how much of what he says can be believed?
Above all, Goldberg understands the power of language. He uses words to coax and punish, to seduce and torment. By opening himself up, he gains the absolute trust of those he meets. His shared confidences open doors and create intimacy, but how much of what he says is invention? In many ways, it doesn’t matter. Whether he lies or speaks the truth is not important. What matters is the result.
In rehearsal, as the play reveals itself line by line, always with Pinter one is aware of the sheer rigour and intellectual power of the writing. Every thought, every moment has depth and character. As the actors begin their journey, each reading of a scene gathers shape and density. First instincts emerge, flourish and are tested.
In the opening scene, Stanley pushes his cornflakes away in disgust, informing Meg that the milk has soured. However, Petey finished his bowl earlier in the scene without complaint.
Meg protests, in her eyes the milk is fine. Is Stanley telling the truth, or is he getting back at his landlady, goading her in revenge for waking him up after a disturbed night? Perhaps Petey has just grown so used to Meg’s somewhat arbitrary housekeeping that, as Stanley later remarks, ‘They’ve been down here too long. They’ve lost their sense of smell.’
There is an argument for both interpretations. The actors have an instinct about such moments, often based on their own character’s relationship to others in the room. But it is important not to settle too quickly on one conclusion and retain an open mind. In the rehearsal room, there is not always a single, correct answer.
The Birthday Party was Pinter’s first full-length play, inspired by a specific experience in his own life. When on tour in Eastbourne as a young actor, he wrote to a friend, telling of ‘filthy, insane digs (with) a great bulging scrap of a woman with breasts rolling at her belly, an obscene household, cats, dogs, filth’. Many years later, he gave an interview where he described the same stay:
“I found digs in which (I) had to share a room with a man in a kind of attic… At the end of the week I said to this fellow, who turned out to have been a concert pianist on the pier, ‘Why do you stay here?’ and he said, ‘There’s nowhere else to go.’ I left with that ringing in my ears. But the play has no relation to that original thing, that situation in Eastbourne, other than that there were two people who got me on to the first page.”
The original production closed in London after six performances. Reviews were dreadful. Granting performance permission in 1958, the Lord Chamberlain had described The Birthday Party as: “An insane, pointless play. Mr Pinter has jumbled all the tricks of Beckett and Ionesco with a dash from all the recently produced plays at the Royal Court Theatre, plus a fashionable flavouring of blasphemy. The result is still silly. The Emperor is wearing no clothes.”
Only Harold Hobson, writing in The Sunday Times, had anything positive to say: “I am willing to risk whatever reputation I have as a judge of plays by saying that Mr Pinter, on the evidence of this work, possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London.”
Harold Pinter, who was 27 years old when The Birthday Party opened in London, would have had no idea that he would go on to be one of the most performed, highly regarded and influential voices of his generation. Written long before he would win a Nobel Prize, or gain worldwide fame, before the label Pinteresque would enter a million sixth-form essays, before his reputation flourished and there was little or no expectation of what he may have to say, he penned this astonishing, ground-breaking and unusual play.