Hothouses and Mid-Life Crises

The West End’s latest box office hits specialise in existential angst and domestic backstabbing

Theatre
A goggle-eyed maniac and his sidekick: Simon Russell Beale (left) and John Simm in “The Hothouse”

When Harold Pinter wrote The Hothouse in 1958, he was still reeling from an icy critical reception to The Birthday Party the year before. He shelved the play, set in an unspecified asylum-cum-detention centre, to which a faceless government bureaucracy has consigned prisoners presumably for political crimes. The Hothouse thus lay in cold storage until 1980. Now it receives its first serious revival with a star cast — and the Trafalgar Studios’ version of Pinter’s dystopia leaves us in no doubt of the corrosions of power. 

Simon Russell Beale plays Roote, the man in charge (loosely) of the institution. Roote has murdered one of his patients and fathered a child by another: one of the more glaring representations of a lunatic in charge of the asylum. Russell Beale proves himself once again as the John Lewis of British actors, thoroughly dependable at whatever he purveys, which in this case blends elements of earlier roles as Stalin and Timon with the fraught inadequacies of Captain Mainwaring trying to control a rambling British outfit of drunks and misfits.

Egging him on, or trying to tip him over the edge, is his sidekick Gibbs, played with an insinuation of violence by John Simm. The sheer pace of delivery director Jamie Lloyd imposes on the text imbues the story with a manic energy, but also reduces parts of an already convoluted dialogue to incoherence. But the major problem here is a flaw in Pinter’s original vision. Are we expected to take seriously the idea that political prisons on the Soviet model were being emulated by British governments in the era of Harold Macmillan? If not, then it is merely a black comedy, rather than a dire warning.

One solution to this is to indulge a “we’re all guilty” approach, which the Trafalgar’s programme duly serves up, complete with an image of manacled prisoners in Guantánamo. Set aside these logical shortcomings though and enjoy the institutional dowdiness conjured up by Soutra Gilmour’s set, Russell Beale’s goggle-eyed mania and Simm’s greasy bonhomie, masking a terrifying coldness. Indira Varma (recently a finely overwrought Alice in The Dance of Death) livens things up as the institution’s resident nymphomaniac, who emerges, hot to trot, at precisely the wrong moments.

 If you really wanted to feel the heat of a national hothouse, the Russia of the 1905 Revolution was the place where the flames of violence were being fanned by bigotry, ignorance and justified grievances against poverty and oppression. Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun was written while he was in prison for his part in the upheavals and is the latest in the adaptations of Russian repertoire at the National by Andrew Upton and director Howard Davies. 

The move from a diet of Chekhov and Bulgakov to Gorky, a more angular and contradictory writer, speaks well for the duo’s ambition. Chekhov offers audiences a lament for a disappearing world; Gorky illustrates the changing Russia as a place of score-settling, where revenge and ignorance combine to destroy the intelligentsia.

So the Protasov household drifts towards disaster with an ineffectual master (Geoffrey Streatfeild) locking himself away with his chemistry experiments, oblivious to social and marital discord. The production reunites veterans of an earlier Upton/Davies triumph, The White Guard, with Bunny Christie as the designer of a Russian villa-cum-fortress, Paul Higgins as the lovelorn vet and Justine Mitchell as his mentally unstable paramour Lena.

True, Upton’s fondness for visiting Aussie — loads of swearing and slang onto Russian classics means that this is not quite the play wot Gorky wrote (there are jarring moments, like a character looking back on time at “Uni”) but it’s not such a distortion that you can’t see through to the intention of the work. It ends with a conflagration, hot enough to warm the front rows of the stalls. 

Speaking of a spoilt intelligentsia who ought to know better, Stephen Sondheim’s musical theatre equivalent of Pinter’s Betrayal, Merrily We Roll Along, which had a famously disastrous first outing on Broadway in 1981, has been revived at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Despite many revisions and director Maria Friedman’s professional attentions, you can still see why it flopped on debut. A drama in which we meet the characters in full mid-life crisis and then wind backwards gives away its secrets in the first ten minutes.

Added to which, it’s not clear what Franklin (an anguished Mark Umbers) has done that is so reprehensible, beyond making money from films, moving to LA and deserting clingy Mary (the superbly vengeful Jenna Russell) and his old scriptwriting mate Charley (Damian Humbley). This is hardly moral turpitude on a grand scale, even in liberal New York in the 1970s. 

Sondheim’s second-best is however pretty good, enlivened by sharp lyrics and an attempt to answer that lurking mid-life question: “How did we get from there to here?” Damned if I know. But verily, it rolls along. 

For an altogether more worrying mid-life decline, Hjalmar Söderberg’s classic story of obsession and murder in a small Swedish town, Doktor Glas, deserves a eulogy. So does the Wyndham’s for trusting West End audiences with a century-old Scandi-monologue, albeit with surtitles. 

Krister Henriksson is the provincial doctor whose empathy for a female patient exposes the seamy side of life in respectable Sweden in 1905 — the same year that Gorky had more explosive things to worry about in provincial Russia.

Abortion, adultery and the justifications of murder are the moral conundrums, and Linus Fellbom’s extraordinary lighting reflects Söderberg’s preoccupation with the impact of the seasons and light on moods and morality. It’s a haunting, mood-altering hour-and-a-half of something different from anything else on the London stage. I did, however, receive an anguished text from a friend after recommending it, which read: “Hang on, it’s in SWEDISH.” When it comes to critics, like insurance policies, do read the small print.