It’s been two years since Lee Lewis published her trailblazing essay Cross-Racial Casting: Changing the Face of Australian Theatre Platform Papers (# 13, 2007).
In it she asked, among other things:
At what point will a (non-white) actor with discernibly accented English be cast in a Pinter?
Julian Meyrick has now answered that question.
His production of The Birthday Party for MTC features not just one, but five non-white actors with discernible accents (Jada Alberts, Isaac Drandic, Gregory Fryer, Glenn Shea & Pauline Whyman. Only Marshall Napier, from last year’s excellent Frost/Nixon, is recognisably white.)
It’s a bold move, sure to attract a lot of criticism, but it more than pays off.
I’ve been a massive (some would say obsessive) fan of Harold Pinter for years. I fantasize frequently about directing Old Times or The Caretaker or even (dare I name its dizzying heights) The Homecoming. Last year, in fact, we did a reading of The Birthday Party as part of our Whale Soundings Program which went off like a frog in a sock, especially during the madcap banter between Craig Annis and Pete Reid (our Goldberg & McCann).
It’s a very special play; the sort of dramatic litmus test that can turn unsuspecting audiences barking mad with its unique blend of lower class voices, English manners, and Kafkaesque nightmare. It’s a play that you need to see to remember just how radical it is. Though written half a century ago, it is, with its indeterminate language, more radical than most of the avant-garde dross of today.
As Goldberg puts it so eloquently to Stanley:
You’re dead. You can’t live, you can’t think, you can’t love. You’re dead. You’re a plague gone bad. There’s no juice in you. You’re nothing but an odour!
A few minor quibbles aside, I think this production captures the spirit and playfulness of Pinter’s language. It would be so easy to fall into mannerism (the deadly repetition of every production that has come before); to overplay the menace and lose the humour of the piece; or to do the inverse, and lose out on Pinter’s ferocious power struggles (“McCann, tell him to sit down.”)
Meyrick has done a sterling job and part of his success lies in re-introducing Pinter to us with a new set of voices. It’s liberating to hear Meg ask “How are your cornflakes?” in straight-up Aussie strine.
I would urge everyone to see this production. It’s rare enough that we get to see Pinter on the mainstage; even more so with such an unconventional cast.
As an afterthought…I couldn’t help but notice that there were a handful of empty seats after interval. All I can say is, I hope those members of the audience left because they were struggling with Pinter’s play and not Meyrick’s casting. On the other hand, perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad thing? Cross-racial casting is supposed to be threatening.
And, in that vein, we need more such casting from our mainstage companies, not less; whether that be a whole play cast against the grain or a spread of roles throughout any given ensemble.
Oh and I couldn’t resist posting this: the great 1968 film version by William Friekin. Do you recognise an external force?