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Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004

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By Richard Lord

Back in 1957, a rather minor British actor named David Baron decided to try his hand at playwrighting. Following on a friend’s request, Baron spun a one-act play with roles for this friend and two other actors.

The audiences in Bristol were generally bewildered by this complex piece with the simple title of The Room. But a minority of viewers were quite impressed with the play, as were the three actors involved and some critics. This was all the encouragement the young actor Baron needed to start turning out a flow of plays with a unique vision and style to them.

As a dramatist, Baron dispensed with that stage alias and returned to his real name, Harold Pinter. By the mid-Sixties, that name had become not only one of the best known in the English-speaking theatre world, but it actually had given rise to an adjective promiscuously tossed out in critical circles as well as intellectual cocktail party banter: Pinteresque.

Another term came about early in Pinter’s career, when the respected theatre critic Irving Wardle coined a phrase to aptly describe the then prodigious playwright’s work: comedies of menace. What Wardle caught in that term was the fact that while Pinter’s plays were indeed spiked with much intelligent wit and larded with laughs, they were also dark and disturbing, infused with an element of threat and danger. Indeed, often the laughter was there to cover our discomfort with the dangers lurking around every clever line, loaded into every Pinteresque pause.

The highly accomplished local theatre company luna-id has now turned its attention to the Pinter canon, and they have chosen two shorter works from his early creative spurt to kick off what they forecast as “a long-term exploration of Pinter’s works”.

The evening opened with The Lover, a mischievous look at how the two halves of a mundane middle-class marriage in pre-Swinging London keep the sexual sparks flying wildly between them. Originally written as a script for television, The Lover translates very easily to the live stage, as luna-id’s production nicely demonstrates.

The play opens with Richard, a successful financial wheeler-and-dealer in the City of London, about to head off for work. Before leaving, he casually asks his wife Sarah if her lover will be dropping by that day. Just as casually, Sarah answers that he will. Richard obligingly responds by saying that he’ll try not to return home too early then.

Boom, bang. In this short exchange we have the smoothly distilled essence of early Pinter: the mix of the totally unexpected, maybe even outrageous with what seems to be routine domesticity. Almost a poster couple for Harold Macmillan’s ‘you-never-had-it-so-good’ Britain, Richard and Sarah are a conventional suburban middle-class couple except for this one little quirk of programmed infidelity. Then, in the next scene, we discover that Sarah is not the only one regularly helping herself to a ‘little bit on the side’: hubby Richard has a long-term mistress, as dutiful Sarah casually remarks. Richard immediately corrects his beloved wife on one detail: he admittedly has a whore that he regularly sees, but Richard in no way considers this lady to be his “mistress”. No, the financial whiz stresses, he only visits this whore because their trysts “express and engender lust with all lust’s cunning”.

In this nicely paced work, Pinter soon arranges a visit by Sarah’s raffish lover, Max. To our surprise (when viewing the play for the first time), Max is none other than Richard himself, his cool suburban demeanour shed along with his well-tailored City Warrior’s suit.

Nor will this be the last strange twist in this deliciously clever dramatic titbit. What apparently started out as a harmless game the couple plays to spice up their all-too conventional marriage takes on an excitingly dangerous turn as first Sarah, and then Richard decide to tinker with the rules of the game. By the end of the dramatic pas de deux, the marriage has again achieved an acceptable balance, but now on an even more perilous level than before.

The luna-id production decided to add its own piquant twist to the piece by casting a real-life married couple in the roles of the game-playing pair. (This is not, mind you, the first time this twist has been added; a number of productions in other countries have paired real-life married partners as Sarah and Richard.) In this case, both Tan Keng Hua and Lim Yu Beng give commendable performances. Tan plays Sarah as psychologically fragile, well aware that she is playing with fire, but not realising the danger of the flame until late in the game. Lim’s Richard conveys a distrustful smarminess from the beginning, which fits the character as he develops through the rest of the play. Lim also makes the switch from Richard to Max rather nicely. (Sarah remains Sarah throughout the piece, changing only the way she reacts to changing circumstances.) Moreover, those moments of percolating lust between Sarah and ‘Max’ convey real sparks of sensuality, something hard to realise on the stage.

Yet, this luna-id version was still somewhat unsatisfying, lacking that final spark needed to make The Lover a startling little piece of theatre. The two main actors - along with Chua Enlai in a brief cameo appearance - catch most of the comedy and crunch of the piece, but there is a key ingredient missing: the danger. The moves by Richard and Max to change the rules of the game should be edged with threat, and Sarah, completely unprepared for these changes, should react to the threat in such a way that the relationship and the play become piquant in the process. But Lim’s husband-lover never suggests that these new twists to the game may not really be a game, so the threat remains rather low-key. What we have finally is a Pinter comedy minus the menace, and so much the lesser for that.

The Lover’s companion piece, The Dumb Waiter, was also in its own way disappointing. This one-act was written some five years before The Lover and shows Pinter in his dazzling gestation period as a writer. Its two human characters, Ben and Gus, are a pair of English hitmen who have travelled to Birmingham on their latest assignment. The play covers the final three-quarters of an hour as Gus and Ben wait for their intended victim to appear. Tension fills the air of the small room where they wait, and it defines our look at their relationship as well as revealing a little more about each character as the tension leaks through.

Before long, the play also works in a third key character of sorts - the dumb waiter itself, that old-time restaurant contraption in which orders get sent down to the kitchen and prepared items returned to the dining area. In this case, the fact that the dumb waiter is relaying orders to the pair of contract killers is totally unexpected, as the duo were sure that the scene of this particular job was the basement of an abandoned building. The tension of the piece steadily mounts as the two do their level best to accede to the orders of the mechanical device, however ill-equipped. But this being early Pinter, that tension is punctuated with sly humour.

The Dumb Waiter is less impressive than The Lovers, as Pinter relies a little more on cliché and second-hand characterisation. (Though he did grow up in a working-class section of London’s East End where, he has told us, there were a ready supply of hoods and violent thugs who served as models for the unsavoury types who fill several of his early works.) But it is, for all of that, a darn good piece of low-rent theatre where we in the audience are kept entertained and guessing not simply until the final moments, but even beyond those final moments.

As the play proceeds, the little betrayals and dishonesties the two hitmen practice with each other set the scene for the invitation to the final betrayal - which Pinter wisely decided to keep us guessing about, when the latest victim turns out to be Gus himself. Did Ben actually have any inkling about this turn of events. Did Gus? And will Ben carry out the assignment and kill his long-time colleague? These are all questions cleverly left unanswered in this stew of comedy, resentment and peril.

The roles of Ben and Gus were handled here by Gerald Chew and Lim Yu Beng respectively. Their performances were altogether competent, but lacking the spark to raise this production to a memorable level. Here the tension between the two characters was expressed primarily through the dialogue, not in a palpable feeling of impending danger. Very possibly it was the accents here that diluted the danger. Both Lim and, especially, Chew delivered their lines in polished, refined readings totally inappropriate to the characters or the lower-class idiom Pinter graces them with. Not for one minute did I get the sense that these were two underclass hoods operating at the edges of society. No, the impression was more that of watching two talented actors displaying their goods but never fitting fully into the characters they were portraying.

But the saddest miss on the official opening night performance I caught came with the denouement, where Gus is thrown back into the grungy room, seemingly as startled to find himself staring down the barrel of Ben’s gun as is Ben to see who is at the other end of that barrel. The final build-up to this scene is, admittedly, quite quick, but it is essential that the anxiety mount significantly as Ben calls for Gus to re-emerge from the pantry and take his place for the hit. But here the required tension never got adequately built; as a result, Gus’s appearance was strangely anticlimactic, even confusing. (The response of many people in the audience with me indicated the latter.)

I would also take exception to prize-winning designer Sebastian Zeng’s set for this show. (Those who have been following our QLRS theatre critiques will recall that hitherto, I have been strong in my praise for Zeng’s designs.) First of all, the well-apportioned layout of this basement in no way, shape or form, suggest the skewed world these characters inhabit and the situation they now find themselves in.

Secondly, and more significantly, Zeng places the dumb waiter at the very edge of stage right, where most of the audience is unable to see most of it. This deprives the piece of a key element of threat. As mentioned above, the dumb waiter serves as a kind of third character, a catalyst for further troubled chemistry between Ben and Gus, and its clear presence on stage adds to its sense of threat. For the play to have its full impact, we should see that this contraption is not only ’dumb’, but also blind to the fate of the two hitmen. Here, not being able to view the stoic ‘face’ of the dumb waiter, we get little of that threat.

For the most part, this luna-id package of Pinters displayed competence rather than inspiration, calculated craft rather than magic, and deliberation rather than depth. As a result, this opening period of exploration serves as more of a homage to than a celebration of Pinter. And celebration would have been so much better.

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QLRS Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004


About Richard Lord
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Return to Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004

  Other Extra Media articles in this Issue

Durang-Utans and Other Species of the Male
Richard Lord reviews recent male-oriented theatre in Singapore.

Shades of Sound
Stella Kon reviews Shadows and Voices.

Related Links

luna-id productions
External link.

The official Harold Pinter website
External link.

Harold Pinter profile
External link.

Film version of The Dumb Waiter
External link to Rotten Tomatoes.

Action Theatre
External link.

Rona Munro interview
External link.

Review of Iron at the Royal Court
External link to the Royal Court Theatre.

Another review of the Royal Court Iron
External link to the Guardian.


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