Last weekend, I saw ‘The Birthday Party’ by Harold Pinter. It had some of my
favourite actors in it including Toby Jones, Stephen Mangan, Zoe Wanamaker, and, of course, Doctor Who’s Pearl Mackie. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was at the Harold Pinter theatre – however, I’ve been living in London for about eight years now and I’ve been coming here all of my life and I didn’t even know there was a Harold Pinter theatre!
There’s no spoiler alert on this post because, frankly, I don’t think I can spoil something I don’t understand. Set in a rundown boarding-house by the seaside, a low key birthday party for the longtime resident, Stanley, is turned into a nightmare after the arrival of two sinister strangers.
It doesn’t surprise me that the day it premiered in London back in 1958, it was roundly torn apart by critics. One critic from Manchester wrote the character “speak in non-sequiturs, half-gibberish and lunatic ravings”. This play came during the era of John Osborne’s ‘Look Back In Anger’ and Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’. Plays were either a social critique or a philosophical romp. ‘The Birthday Party’, however, doesn’t really fall into either of these categories and has instead been described as a comedy of menace and deals with shifting and confused identity and dark political themes. Many of the characters’ backstories change depending on who they’re talking to, and even appropriate information from other backstories. It’s frankly, a bit of a tangle, which is both funny and rather disturbing.
In the play’s brochure, they feature a letter that Harold Pinter received from a member of his confused audience.
I would be obliged if you would kindly explain to me the meaning of your play The Birthday Party. These are the points which I do not understand:
1.Who are the two men?
2. Where did Stanley come from?
3. Were they all supposed to be normal?
You will appreciate that without the answers to my questions I cannot fully understand your play.
To which, Pinter replied:
I would be obliged if you would kindly explain to me the meaning of your letter. These are the points which I do not understand:
1.Who are you?
2. Where do you come from?
3. Are you supposed to be normal?
You will appreciate that without the answers to my questions I cannot fully understand your letter.
Apart from proving some writers shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the public, it does quite neatly (and hilariously) makes Pinter’s point. I’ve always loved the idea of identity and how malleable it is.
During the play, the character Nat Goldberg recounts several stories from his youth, in which his mother and wife call him by a different name to the one he has given as his own, and his father gives him a third. Both Simey and Benny, neither short for Nathan or Nathaniel. If that’s even his real name. While it’s hilarious at the time, given the conviction he has, it makes you feel oddly uncomfortable with the information you’re being given.
Names are continually in question during the play. When asked about his son, Nat Goldberg replies:
Goldberg: Emanuel. A quiet fellow. He never said much. Timmy I used to call him.
Goldberg: That’s right. Manny.
Goldberg: Sure. It’s short for Emanuel.
McCann: I thought you called him Timmy.
Goldberg: I did.
It occurred to me in many ways, the play is a bit like eavesdropping. And if anyone has ever sat in a cafe or a train station and just listened to the people around them, I think you’d agree that most of what you hear (from your perspective at least) is mostly non-sequiturs, half-gibberish and lunatic raving. Or at least it is in London – this is where all the lunatics gravitate to.
People don’t frequently walk into the room, announce who they are, what their aims are and their backstory. Real life is messy and doesn’t come with SparkNotes. And what people remember of their past is ever quite true, that’s just human nature.
There are also a lot of political overtones, from brain-washing to forced conformity. It culminates in the now famous line where Petey, the owner of the boarding-house, tells Stanley, “Don’t let them tell you what to do!” Pinter’s advice for us all.
My advice is, if this sounds like your cup of tea, go. The acting is incredible and it’s well worth the watch. But I would also say this isn’t going to be for everyone. When you get down to it, nothing actually happens in this play. There’s a birthday party, and then Stanley is taken away by the men in suits. That’s it. But I loved it anyway. The writing was amazing and some the speeches by Stephen Mangan were just riveting.
But it’s on a strictly limited run so if you’re interested, you have until the 14th April 2018.