First praise here goes to whoever prepared this venue for a socially distanced audience. Instead of depressing signs telling you where not to sit, photographs from previous performances are used on empty seats. What a lovely, colourful, touch. A nod to heritage is appropriate, given Hampstead Theatre’s 60th anniversary celebrations, which this Harold Pinter classic is a part of. And I get to say that I sat next to Anna Maxwell Martin in the theatre… kind of.
Of course, any theatre deserves praise for putting on a show at the moment. But getting to see this short piece, between long lockdowns and tier adjustments, is especially welcome as it is directed by the talented Alice Hamilton. It’s a story of hired killers, waiting for… something. Hamilton’s direction is confident and expert, respecting Pinter’s nuance and drama and appreciative of the playwright but not intimidated by him.
Hamilton has secured fine performances from a talented duo: Alec Newman plays “senior partner” Ben, seemingly in charge of Shane Zaza’s Gus. Seemingly, as he knows as little about what is going on as his more anxious colleague. Through their skilled performances, the audience shares their confusion. A vague sense that whatever organisation they work for, and the enigmatic Wilson who is in charge, is being “tightened up” is compounded by bizarre messages the two men receive. What’s going on, and what’s happened previously, is never fully revealed, but glances at the men’s history prove chilling.
The production never overplays the more surreal touches from Pinter. That someone is playing “games” with Ben and Gus becomes more sinister as a result. The sense of menace is aided by James Perkins’ set, the “windowless dump” all action takes place in. We’ve all spent a little too long indoors lately, but under Hamilton’s steely control the claustrophobic tension in The Dumb Waiter builds marvellously – this is a director very much in charge.
I am confident all would agree that debbie tucker green’s new play for the Royal Court is a powerful one. The play’s force comes from the performances and its poetry. The acting and dialogue are of such a high standard you can see those reviewers’ stars mounting up before your eyes. But what feels very much an intellectual exercise doesn’t quite deliver: pointless is too strong a word to use about such a quality piece, but don’t expect anything persuasive behind this focused examination of a dilemma.
The scenario is simple yet tense: the victim of a crime gets to decide the method of executing the perpetrator. But there are no arguments about the death penalty, rather, a bureaucratic meeting with officials who obsessively follow procedures to enact the execution. Claire Rushbrook and Shane Zaza are well studied in these roles, dealing with the economy of the writing and creating a comedy of compromises. It’s a pity that these well-meaning characters are a little too ineffectual and ill prepared, with the “transparency” they aim for becoming one of many heavy ironies.
The struggle to vocalise trauma is painfully acknowledged; nobody has “the words, the stomach, the imagination” to empathise with the carefully undisclosed crime discussed. Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s performance as the articulate victim given a potent voice is stunning, creating a depiction of pain shocking in its distance from platitudes. tucker green’s direction is taut as a bow but the explorations of revenge, justice and the systems we rely on to deliver the law don’t satisfy. It’s a puzzle to have no real target aimed at with such skill.
David Hare’s new play is an exemplary dramatisation of Katherine Boo’s non-fiction work about the slums of Mumbai. Hare squeezes the most theatrical moments out of Boo’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning reportage, preserving the clarity of voice and retaining the objective tone that gives the book such power. Boo’s research into the Annawadi slum, whose destitute inhabitants live off rubbish generated by the nearby airport, investigates poverty in an intelligent, non-patronising and thought-provoking manner. The book and stage show are glimpses into another world – horrifying and filled with tragedy, and yet full of life and hope.
A strong cast peoples the slum effectively. One surprise is how matrifocal society in Annawadi is. Stephanie Street plays Asha, a ruthless yet complex figure aiming to control the slum, with her own shocking take on the virtues of corruption. Victims abound, including the once relatively prosperous Hussain family, headed by Zehrunisa (Meera Syal gives a terrific performance), caught in the Indian legal system after the tragic machinations of their neighbour Fatima. Thusitha Jayasundera, who wonderfully doubles as a judge, takes the part of the crippled Fatima, who burns herself to death to spite the Hussains. A parallel tale of a girl so desperate that she drinks bleach shows the prevalence of suicide in the slum as an act of self-determination – grim exercises in defiance that come to haunt the stage.
Designer Katrina Lindsay recreates the spatchcock dwellings with bold economy. Director Rufus Norris marshals activity to recreate the energy of the environment and especially among its younger inhabitants: Sunil, who becomes a thief despite the dangers, and the innocent Abdul, whose brush with the law makes him want to become ever more virtuous. Further strong performances here from Hiran Abeysekera and Shane Zaza in these roles. As Norris’ first project at the National since the announcement that he is to succeed Nicholas Hytner, Behind The Beautiful Forevers is an exciting choice. Norris uses the Olivier auditorium with confidence, revelling in its scale. More importantly, he and Hare have created one of those works of theatre that strike you as something everyone should see.