By Steph Lam
Castle Theatre Company’s production of The Birthday Party makes for a terrifying, up close experience with one of Pinter’s most well-known plays. The performance space was well chosen and, as the production team has said, the space makes for an intimate audience experience. In the backroom of the Empty Shop, only a few rows of audience seating fits beside the performance space and a front-row seat brings the audience right into the action.
This production is cathartic to watch as, for such a dark play, being so close to the performance space is a physically draining experience. The audience isn’t spared from any of the psychological or physical violence of Pinter’s play and you can’t help but tense up as Maurice Samely (Stanley) slams his hand on the table in front of you, or while the cast shout or begin lifting up chairs aggressively.
Director Dom Williams’ decision to limit the actors’ movements onstage is also a shrewd choice. It enhances the claustrophobic atmosphere of the small space but it also highlights the actors’ gestures and expressions.
With the audience seated so close to them, the pressure on the actors for meticulous performances is exceptional but the cast rose up to the demands. Carrie Gaunt, in particular, delivered a brilliant performance as Meg and her every gesture bore up to scrutiny. Edward Cherrie’s Goldberg too was a polished performance, fluctuating convincingly between a chillingly composed man and an affectionate, obsequious character. Dominic McGovern and Gaunt also opened the play with a wonderful depiction of a squabbling couple, contextualizing Pinter’s circular dialogue with a real sense of character.
What lighting that could be rigged up in the Empty Shop was also integral to the overall effect of the production. At various points the audience is plunged into darkness and it was particularly impressive that the torch that was used in these scenes lit Samely’s face in angles that were terrifying.
All in all, the production is a harrowing experience, staying true to the essence of Pinter’s plays. Fans of Pinter won’t be disappointed and hopefully many more Absurdist plays will be performed at Durham. As this production and last week’s Waiting for Godot shows, they can be such a valuable addition to the Durham student stage!
Photograph: Annie Fairchild