Some theatre company names become totems for quality and experimentation and they develop a style that becomes recognisably their own. In the UK we have groups such as Told By An Idiot, Headlong, Cheek By Jowl and Emma Rice’s latest Wise Children. In America companies such as Steppenwolf, Woolly Mammoth and Rattlestick have become internationally known. One of the biggest “names” is The Wooster Group which was formed in the mid-1970s by Spalding Gray, Willem Dafoe and Elizabeth LeCompte; the latter is still at the helm. The group specialises in experimental theatre – indeed the term might have been coined for them – and they have regularly outraged public opinion and had run ins with dramatists such as Arthur Miller over the use of their material. The group have released a series of videos of some of their classic productions as a stop gap while live performances have been curtailed. Having never been able to see their work I was intrigued as to what the experience would entail. I thought it was probably best to start with something with which I was reasonably familiar in order to see what had been done by way of experimentation with an established piece and so selected The Room by Harold Pinter.
This was Pinter’s very first produced play so we’re talking late 1950s here. I saw it a couple of years ago as part of the Jamie Lloyd Pinter At The Pinter season of all his short plays across eight evenings (reviewed here and here) when it featured Jane Horrocks and Rupert Graves. On the face of it, this seems like a fairly mainstream choice of title for the Wooster Group to attempt even if the writing at the time of first production might have been considered left field. The company, however, moved it way beyond left field and out into the long grass to the point where the terms reinvention or reimaging might best be employed. Heavily influenced by Beckett, Pinter’s text concerns a couple, Rose and Bert living in a dingy and perpetually cold north London flat. She is all nervous energy and keeps up a non-stop stream of inconsequential nothingness, prattling on, uttering inanities and repeating herself, trying to draw a response from her unresponsive and lumpen spouse. The landlord, Kidd, drops by, Bert goes out to work, a couple of visitors looking for accommodation come and go, followed by a blind man with a message from Rose’s past. There is a sudden and unexpected explosion of violence and everything pretty much goes back to how it is at the start. As I wrote when I reviewed the Lloyd version: “Deep and meaningful or pretentious tosh? – I was left in two minds”…. and that opinion still holds.
Let me now list (some of) the variations and, yes, oddities that went into the Wooster Group’s production:
- Although still clearly set in north London the character accents are all American
- The very first and last bits of dialogue (which are a repeat of the start) are sung
- One of the visitor characters carries a lute which she occasionally strums
- A narrator intones all of Pinter’s setting descriptions and character movements (even when the actors don’t actually carry them out)
- Some of the setting is realistic (the rocking chair, the window) while other parts are merely representational ( the stove, the kitchen table)
- There is a menacing aural underscore which ramps up the tension
- There is no attempt to hide the technical support at the sides of the stage
To be fair, the last one may be because it is a film of a late rehearsal for archival purposes rather than an actual performance…but maybe that’s just coincidental. All of this makes for an unsettling experience which I guess is the point but, to my mind, rather devalues the power of the writing and removes some of the Pinteresque mystique only to replace it with Wooster group mystique instead. The play seemed to exist in a defiant bubble of reinvention for reinventions sake and I don’t think it revealed anything more to me than I already understood. Much of the acting seems mechanical with performers carrying out activities simply because the text says so rather than out of any sense of it being what the character might actually do.
In this production, Pinter’s attempt to blend realism with the absurd seems to solely centre on the latter aspect and had the play been any longer I might have found it wearisome. In any case being an early work, it is hardly Pinter at its best to start with. Apparently, there was a problem over the rights for the play when it premiered back in 2015. Eventually the Wooster Group were told that they could go ahead as long as the performances went unreviewed … so I hope five years on I’m not in any sort of trouble!
The Room (along with other Wooster Group classic pieces) is available on Vimeo – click here
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