A dark and profound danger sulks under Butterworth’s repartee. It is not precisely the same kind of darkness we find in Pinter’s early plays. The old master himself called this idiosyncratic darkness “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet”: in other words, an indescribable violence concealed by an inconceivable object. The nearest thing we have to a cocktail cabinet is a caricatured farmhouse furnished with objects from an unknown age – broken armchairs, a bathtub filled with firewood, a fissure in the muddy tiles of the floor where Britain’s top playwright lands an asteroid carrying his most memorable characters from Mojo into this new West Country setting. This time, there is no dead body trope to sustain the plot and sadly the play potters along without the same energy of his other work – a force that teeters on the brink between friendship and violence. However, the play is a challenge for Susanna Quirke, who must be by now Oxford’s best director, whose previous efforts have been highly successful, if not a little safe.
Without the aid of an orthodox plot, as Quirke had in Rope and Posh, Butterworth’s play requires a steady hand. The trills of flirtation and the changes in power dynamics between the three main characters, Mr West, Patsy and Wally, have to be earned by creating a believable narrative arch. Quirke builds to the breaking points – although one or two times the violent bits seemed a little rehearsed, but one must allow for teething problems early in a run – and she resists the urge to indulge in those pauses that Butterworth imitates from his friend and teacher Harold Pinter. I searched for the pencil marks and construction lines in Quirke’s production – false moves, wrong turns, abstruse changes of direction – but the movement worked with the motivations of the characters and provided a framework for three talented actors, one of whom I believe, if you will excuse the Pinterism, was at the height of his powers in this production. Leo Suter was natural in delivering every moment of his part, which is the highest compliment an actor can receive. It is not easy to play someone more stupid than yourself, but Suter’s creative intelligence allowed the naive candour (are we to believe this?) to remain unquestionable until the curtain call. It is to be noted that all the actors performed well and had the best dynamic of any student ensemble I have seen this year.
Quirke had a grand design here, but as Michael Billington rightly suggests, the playwright does not. The Winterling is a production of rare technique and ability in the current Oxford theatre scene. Go and see it. Take my tip.