Theatre Preview: The Birthday Party, Maidment Theatre

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Actors Darien Takle (left) and Kevin Wilson (middle) with director Raymond Hawthorne are rehearsing for Harold Pinter's play 'The Birthday Party'. Photo / Natalie Slade
Actors Darien Takle (left) and Kevin Wilson (middle) with director Raymond Hawthorne are rehearsing for Harold Pinter's play 'The Birthday Party'. Photo / Natalie Slade

There's a line toward the end of Harold Pinter's play The Birthday Party where one character cautions another: "Don't let them tell you what to do!"

It's the type of comment theatremaker Michael Lawrence has taken to heart throughout his 30-year career.

While others might opt to stage popular local comedies, contemporary American (and increasingly Australian) plays or blockbuster musicals, Lawrence's company, Potent Pause Productions, has stuck with European classics.

And they're often the tricky ones: more than a few Pinter plays, a Strindberg and a Berkoff for good measure. Then there was the 2009 production of Eugene Ionesco's absurdist masterpiece The Chairs, which almost drove Lawrence to distraction when he decided to perform English and French versions.

For him, it's all about the art and challenging yourself as a performer.

By doing things his way, Lawrence always finds an audience interested in seeing - to quote Herald critic Janet McAllister - "European classics that might otherwise be forgotten, in engaging and accessible ways".

So now he's back - briefly - after nearly two years in London, and is reunited with his former drama school teacher and mentor Raymond Hawthorne to present another Pinter classic, The Birthday Party.

"I know some people might think Pinter is old hat, but to me he's always been years ahead of his time," says Lawrence. "Show me something better than some of these classics."

Like most Pinter plays, The Birthday Party defies a neat summary and is certainly written for an audience to make what they will of it.

It starts in a rundown boarding house, possibly on England's southeast coast, where the mysterious world of Petey (Kevin Wilson), his slovenly wife Meg (Darien Takle) and their boarder Stanley (Joseph Rye) is upended by the arrival of two strangers, Goldberg (Lawrence) and McCann (Jonathan Allen).

No one knows exactly who the men are, what they want with Stanley or why Meg insists on throwing Stanley a party when he insists it's not his birthday. Enter Lulu (Fern Sutherland) and the party spirals dangerously out of control.

Lawrence says he likes the play because it allows the audience to make their own decisions about what's going on and what the characters represent and, he adds, because all the characters, including the supposed villains, have a vulnerability.

Director Hawthorne thinks the play is about the emergence of the common man and the corruption of innocence as Britain's strictly demarcated class system began to crumble in the 1950s and 60s.

He's had a bit of time to think about The Birthday Party, having directed a version 50 years ago while working at a theatre in Buxton, Derbyshire. His 1962 production was only the second time The Birthday Party had been staged anywhere after a disastrous opening season in London in 1958.

Critics hated the play and audiences stayed away. Only Sunday Times reviewer Harold Hobson, champion of several eventually influential playwrights, gave it a glowing review, declaring Pinter had an original and arresting talent.

Hobson was too late to save the play, though. When, four years later, Hawthorne and his players wanted a work to perform for just a week-long season, fellow Kiwi Paddy Frost suggested The Birthday Party.

"Hobson's review had generated a lot of interest but the play had already closed so we thought, 'Why not?' and we were right. People from all over the Midlands and Yorkshire and Derbyshire started ringing up when the play was advertised and asking if it was the same one Harold Hobson wrote about. As soon as they heard it was, they booked en masse. We had a terrific season."

Hawthorne was only too happy to direct the Potent Pause production, seeing a neat symmetry in returning to the play about 50 years later. But more than that he wanted to work with Lawrence, whom he trained with at the Theatre Corporate Drama School and remembered as having vigour, strength, power and individuality.

Lawrence is about to make a marked career change. Although he says he'll always dabble in acting, he intends to return to Britain and work with Thames Reach, a London-based charity that helps the homeless. He already volunteers, spending evenings scouring the streets looking for people who need accommodation.

"I've met engineers and people who had good jobs who got laid off and have lost everything. It can be very depressing and sad, but it's also incredibly uplifting when you see people making a move forward.

"I think the skills I've learned from acting are a great help and I've got a fair amount of life experience. It's good to think I have found a new vocation for the latter part of my life."

For his part, Hawthorne is reluctant to see his former star student leave, saying he thinks Lawrence has much to offer the artistic community.

"But, of course, I can understand why he wants to do this. He's always had a lot of wisdom and tenacity and, like many of us, has had his frail moments which make him able to empathise and assist."

Performance

What: The Birthday Party
Where and when: Musgrove Studio, Maidment Theatre, March 8-31.

- NZ Herald

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