Pause for Pinter: The Hothouse, Celebration, Out Through The In Door

You wait years for a good Pinter play, and then three come along at once. After last term’s superb ‘The Birthday Party’, a production that earned four and five star reviews across the board, there suddenly seems to be a rash of Pinter plays spreading across Oxford.  Natasha Frost, director of Jesus College Dramatic Society’s inaugural production ‘Celebration’, theorised that Pinter’s popularity stems from the way his work “manages to straddle ‘edgy’ and ‘accessible’,” before going on to say that “putting on a Pinter play is relatively easy to do, because the cast size is usually small and the stage easily assembled.” So far, so student-like, but Hilary’s biggest Pinter production promises almost exactly the opposite to Frost’s kitchen sink drama.

Celebration, The Hothouse and the Pinter-inspired new writing Out Through the In Door are all on this term, but by far and away the grandest of these is The Hothouse, showing at the Playhouse from the 1st to the 4th of February. Director Jamie MacDonagh is extremely confident about the production, and he shows it when he says he thinks they can do better than Ian Rickson’s National Theatre production. “Which sounds horrendous,” he admits moments later, but it’s clear he’s not taking it back.

The Hothouse is not a ‘typical’ Pinter play, not falling among the kitchen sink dramas for which he is best known, and MacDonagh admits that few people have heard of it. Even those who know the play may find themselves surprised by new twists added by MacDonagh’s staging and interpretation. Without giving too much away, the play centres on an ambiguous institution and the characters responsible for running it. Like Pinter’s earlier dramas it is darkly comic, but it is frequently classed with his more political works and rarely staged. MacDonagh points to this as giving the play a measure of integrity while remaining commercially viable – and with six shows at the Playhouse to sell out, the Pinter name is an important hook, however keen MacDonagh is to stress it won’t be packed out with school children.

It seems like there are plenty of reasons to think about the production in terms of the professional show the team clearly intend it to be. The cast, whittled down from two hundred auditions, showcases some of the best actors Oxford has to offer, as one of the other directors I spoke to happily admitted. From the sound of it the staging will make the most of the actors, even as they leave the stage. Three large screens mimic three CCTV screens, which show the full extent of the institution and perhaps give yet more scope to a director who savours the “very filmic quality” of the play. “When someone leaves the room or leaves the office you actually see them continuing down the corridor and walking through this enormous building; because so much of what is different about The Hothouse is that it’s got this high ethos … and so we wanted to make it as big as possible.”

In the end MacDonagh’s declaration of intent returns to what every director of Pinter I’ve spoken to has in some way addressed: “We’re going to try and make people laugh, and we’re going to try and actually scare them.” This duality of Pinter is something every director needs to bring out, because every audience member expects it, but it’s clear the productions on this term will be very different in style. Celebration, with its easily assembled stage and, going by the trailer, meticulous realism, is sure to provide an interesting note of contrast to the larger, glossier production dominating calendars in third week. Where The Houthouse has “an elite quality to it, hopefully,” Celebration is more accessible and will probably work well as the first piece of Pinter you see this term. I would advise, however, that it’s not your last.

Of course, if that’s not enough, there is one final show – not strictly Pinter, but Pinteresque. Alex Mills’ Out Through The In Door is an homage to the great playwright’s work, written using Pinter’s own methods in an attempt to capture a similar tragicomic tone. When asked about the other productions on this term, Mills mused that “Pinter’s quality means that it can be done at a large scale and a small scale,” while his own production attempted to find the same rhythms of language that makes Pinter so poetic. On in eighth week, it sounds like the perfect ending to a term where we can expect some fascinating performances , and gives one pause for thought.

Frankie Goodway

PHOTO/Arthur Laidlaw