“Don’t you ever get a bit fed up?” one man asks another, and in the Old Vic‘s live streaming of The Dumb Waiter, the answer is, “not when theatre is this well done“.
It’s in that look that Ben gives, as Gus fiddles with his shoes after finding little hidden treasures within, that we discover an engagement that is as priceless and intriguing as this captivating play and production being streamed out by The Old Vic. “No, honest, it’s enough to make the cat laugh.” The two are a prized team of seasoned actors playing hitmen waiting in the basement of a supposedly abandoned cafe for the orders to be delivered about their next target. But when the orders do start coming in, via the titular Dumb Waiter, but they are not at all what is expected, much like Harold Pinter’s spellbinding and tense one act play. Many say that this 1957 short play is one of his tightest and best creations, “more consistent than The Birthday Party and sharper than The Caretaker” (Derbyshire, Harry. “Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter (review)”, Modern Drama, vol 53, no 2 (2010), pp266-268), and in that short 60 minutes, one can certainly see why.
The waiting and the unraveling of the two is heavy with dread, and these two finely tuned actors craft their all in the sharp working-class small-talk dialogue that escalates the energy between them. Gus, gorgeously played by Daniel Mays (Donmar’s Same Deep Water As Me) states, with agitation, that it feels like he’s been there for years, wishing to have a bit of a view, and get a look at the scenery, but Pinter has another plan. “You’re playing a dirty game,” Gus shoots at Ben, meticulously portrayed by David Thewlis (2017’s “Fargo“), but it’s the “Why” abstractionisms that reverberate off those claustrophobic walls on that wide Old Vicstage (before a masked live audience) where the true igniting of a discontent flame is lit with a match, one of many slid under the door. They argue over the semantics of common language, with “light the kettle” and “put on the kettle” becoming a matter of utmost importance. The tension flares up, when The Dumb Waiter arrives, most menacingly, and guns are drawn in fear and anticipation of the great unknown. The puzzling orders for bean sprouts and all start descending one after the other, whistling down the pipeway, making no sense except in the two men’s inability to deliver. It’s pathologically thrilling, and captivatingly tense.
The play is a complete unraveling of sorts, with Pinter (Betrayal) playing around with the dynamics of power and the tense attachment of partnership. They wait, without any idea where to begin, like some Beckett-ian pair, for the unseen authority figure to deliver the life or death verdict of the day. “You kill me,” he says, not knowing where to begin. The couple, playing out the marital stereotype to perfection, bicker and quarrel like pros, prattling on as we gain insight into the dominant-subservient construct that orchestrates power in our hierarchical society. It pits the insurgent against the conformist, in essence, with an outcome that is unknown even to the players. The ending clamps down on the idea with an expertise that is exciting and fresh, even after all these years, teasing out the betrayal and destructiveness of team players within the battle of our everyday existence. Old Vic: In Camera and director Jeremy Herrin (National/St. Ann’s People, Places & Things), once again, have found deep intention within the theatre company’s sixth globally streamed live production. The Dumb Waiter does us the honor of exciting us again with live theatre, while delivering a streaming event that shines as bright as the team involved. “What’s he playing this game for?” A great question that’s “all there in black and white” and in those glorious shades of gray (thanks to set and costume designer Hyemi Shin, with lighting by Prema Mehta, and sound design by Fergus O’Hare), one that I was thrilled to examine inside and out. Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter orders us to sit up, pay attention, and draw our intellectual guns in the glory of live (and streamed) great theatre. The Dumb Waiter livestreams at the Old Vic.
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