Theatre review: The Dumb Waiter

by todadwithlove

Dear Dad

The real identity of the dumb waiter is as ambiguous as the anonymity of hands that manipulate those pulleys.

This is a play about the road between confronting a crisis and the eventual reunification of oneself with peace, even if that peace means death.

Harold Pinter’s 1957 play, like many of his early works, has a creeping emblematic quality within a realistic presentation.

As expected, it turns its back on the outside world, and folds into the constricting flesh-and-blood milieu of a small social circle.

A pair of hitmen are waiting for orders in a basement room. Ben is inured to the nature of their job. As he whiles away his time reading the newspapers, the more senior of the duo deliberately highlights the stupidity and cruelty of ordinary people to justify his profession.

Gus, by contrast, is questioning the quality of his life in his occupation, and expresses misgivings about their unseen employer. Wondering ad nauseam about whom their next victim might be, he is obviously shaken by the messy aftermath of their last assignment — a girl — that has become the crisis to set him on this path to finding himself.

Under Gorkem Acarolglu’s strong and sensitive direction, Metanoia Theatre’s exquisite staging of this compelling drama evokes a strong Beckett flavour. Silence is a prominent character clothed only by meaningless dialogue as Ben parrys revelations of what he knows.

There are metaphors furled tightly within metaphors in this 50-minute one act play.

And these are well executed by the mesmerising performance of the central cast: Greg Ulfan is excellent as Ben. Wearing an accent palpably of a higher social status than his more working-class counterpart, Ulfan deftly delivers his lines laced with double-speak, defensive aggression, and Freudian slips. In spite of his deference for the boss, the well-built actor is convincing in his selfish, if emotionally vulnerable, proclivities.

Leslie Simpson too is mercilessly brilliant as Gus. Our hearts go out to his hopeless naiveté, maintaining belief in humanity despite the odds. He offers all his possessions for the gratification of their employer (and Ben) only to realise they’re not enough. His despair and frustrations are heartbreaking. But it is the anguish etched into his features as Gus retreats inwards in a mental awakening that is truly memorable.

As Gus travels this course on his quest for peace, Pinter litters his way with inexplicable surprise rewards e.g., matches under the door, and a multitude of cryptic demands carried by the dumb waiter in the wall, in ways reminiscent of Existential Theatre.

Shane Grant’s design uses the limited venue facilities with skilful ingenuity and Robert Jordan’s soundscape injects suspense and tension throughout this thoughtful production.

In The Dumb Waiter that has been dubbed Theatre of the Threshold, Metanoia has chosen to focus only on Gus’ passage along this threshold. Their staging truncates the original play so that we don’t get to decide who the waiter really is. Nor do we get to see the calm in Gus looking down the barrel of the gun.

Still, this is a splendid adaptation of a splendid play.

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