Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1
Opened 18 July
, 2007

Nearly all of Harold Pinter's plays are about one form or another of non-communication, and most involve a power imbalance whether formal or social. That much is common knowledge. However, we don't always grasp the degree to which these are linked. It is obvious in his most overtly political works, such as One For The Road or Mountain Language, that the oppressors will only be told what their victims think they want to hear, or at any rate will delude themselves into only hearing that much. But the same principle holds among, say, the parties to the love triangle in Betrayal. Pinter seems to be demonstrating that communication is possible only between equals.

The Hothouse, written after The Caretaker in 1958 but only premièred in 1980, appears to exemplify the imbalance of formal power structures. This disintegrating "rest home" for unseen inmates of an unspecified kind is peopled by archetypes of bureaucratic politicking. There is the director, Roote, aware of little except his desire to remain at the top; the too-assiduous underling, Gibbs, and the knowing one who overplays his hand, Lush; Miss Cutts, ready to form both office and sexual liaisons for her own ends; Lamb, whose eagerness to please is brutally exploited. Of course, this is all a metaphor for the iniquities of the world at large. The symbols are not hard to discern: the home is an ill-maintained, ill-run place where all vectors of personal interaction change at whim or are taken to extremes. Hildegarde Bechtler's set is at once impersonal and universal, coated in that shade of pale green paint only ever seen in old, tenth-rate public buildings. And in the end, albeit briefly, the lunatics take over the asylum.

When it is put like that, Pinter's own original dissatisfaction with the play is understandable: its satire seemed forced to him, its characters "cardboard". What redeems it is that other aspect of Pinterishness, the communication or lack thereof: the way characters' words and concepts slide past each other, lubricated by an apparently common language but never meshing. It is this kind of slight incongruity which is one of the hallmarks of Paul Ritter's performance: always the same shape and size as the hole, but never quite settling snugly into it. Ritter keeps alerting us that there is more to the character than we see, and it makes him a perfect Pinter actor, even whilst engaging here in broad comedy as Lush with a soda siphon and several glasses of whisky. (Nowhere else in Pinter will you see gags as blatant as these; there is even an exploding cigar, and silly wordplay en passant such as "Wobbles when she walks?" – "Oh, possibly a trifle, sir.")

Finbar Lynch's Gibbs is precisely the kind of lieutenant one would be terrified to have, and a reminder why he made such a good Cassius in Julius Caesar. Stephen Moore is slightly more obviously incompetent, slightly less palpably dictatorial than Pinter himself was in the role in the play's last major revival in 1995. Still, director Ian Rickson ensures that characters are properly pitched not simply in themselves, but in all their interactions. Even Leo Bill as Lamb, with an accent too affected to be at all credible, shocks us as he remains visibly grateful to be allowed to help by being subjected to interrogation and torture. Pinter's oldest associate, Henry Woolf, has a cameo as the head janitor. The inmates' offstage rebellion is conveyed by a soundtrack of groans and cackles more in keeping with zombie or other horror movies, but these effects work. Horror, in a personal and (of course) political sense, is also what Pinter is about.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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