Saturday 28th October 2013, evening
Traditionally, actors are taught to use the ‘five Ws’ when analysing a play and the characters in it – who, what, where, when and why. In the case of Harold Pinter’s ‘The Dumb Waiter’, currently enjoying a revival at the Print Room, they won’t have much to work with: the ‘what’ is there, but for everything else there is almost no indication – and plenty of room for speculation. One of the great advantages of this is that the play, over fifty years old now, doesn’t feel dated at all – in this production only the food packaging and non-safety matches fixes the action in a different era. Yet the style remains completely naturalistic, even as the situation gets more and more absurd.
The plot, if you can call it that, centres around two hit-men, Gus and Ben, awaiting instructions for their next ‘job’ in a dingy basement. The Dumb Waiter suddenly comes to life, and orders for food start to be sent down from above, instilling a growing sense of panic in both men, building to an unexpected and shocking denouement.
Pinter famously never commented on the meaning of his work. Whilst directing one of his own plays, he is said to have quipped ‘of course, we can’t be sure of what the author intended here’. Perhaps this sense of mystery has helped with their longevity – with only the spoken (and unspoken) language to go on, and the impossibility of seeing inside the characters’ minds, there are many nuances and inferences to be made – the possible interpretations are seemingly endless. The triviality of the language and preoccupations of the characters touch on the banality of evil, but also perhaps contain an element of hope – Gus’s endless questions seem pointless and irritating at first, but we wonder if they have also led him to challenge the status quo at a higher level. The Dumb Waiter itself conceals an unseen authority, whom they feel compelled to obey, trying desperately to fulfill the ‘orders’ even though they have no idea who is sending them. Although absurd, this seems to foreshadow the work of Stanley Milgram with his experiments in obedience. It is as if these contemporaries were both exercised with the post war question of how people could commit atrocities whilst claiming only to be ‘following orders’.
The real genius of this play, though, is the comedy, which simultaneously gives us intellectual distance whilst making us complicit in the action. The banter is well-observed and very funny, and the sight of two ‘hard’ men panicking when asked to send up some scampi is truly hilarious, but leaves us feeling deeply uncomfortable afterwards.
The Print Room is the perfect venue for this play – as a small studio space with no fixed features we have always found it unrecognisable for each new production, and here designer Andrew D Edwards has gone to town in recreating a realistically grim basement complete with damp walls and insalubrious institutional beds. Peter Rice’s sound design also adds to the feeling of menace with the dumb waiter’s mysterious rumblings. This is certainly an immersive experience. Clive Wood as Ben, who seems to have assumed the role of the senior partner, has a strong physical presence and contained energy, which explodes only briefly when his authority is questioned, only to settle in to quiet simmering frustration, whose source we can’t quite identify. As Gus, the younger of the two, questioning and complaining about everything, Joe Armstrong is full of nervous energy and bright-eyed innocence which is at odds with the work he is engaged in, and he draws us in without us quite knowing why.
This looks set to be another triumph for the Print Room, and director Jamie Glover has given this classic play a gritty and engaging production. There is just one niggle, and it’s a positive one – at fifty minutes long (although this was a preview, so perhaps the actors will settle into those famous Pinter pauses and increase the running time to the advertised hour by the end of the run), we did wonder why the producers didn’t take the opportunity to air another short play as a companion piece. Having said that, even a small slice of Pinter goes a long way.