The Hothouse was written in , but the author's second play now seems chilling in its prescience. Matt Trueman talks to the director and stars of a new production. Harold Pinter didn't think much of his second play initially. So I discarded the play at once.
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H arold Pinter was, among many other things, a comic writer; and I would distrust any Pinter evening that didn't make us laugh. But, richly pleasurable and boundlessly funny as Jamie Lloyd's new production of this early Pinter play is, I feel it misses something of its chilling political undertow. The history of The Hothouse is that Pinter wrote it in , put it to one side and only rescued it from oblivion in What astonishes me every time I see it is how eerily prophetic it is in its vision of a world where psychiatric hospitals are used as a means of curing social dissidents.
In this case we are in some deeply English "rest home" run by a tetchy ex-colonel, Roote, who on Christmas Day finds himself confronted by a dual crisis: one of his numerically identified patients, , has died while another, , has unexpectedly given birth. What follows is a blackly comic portrait of the insidious corruption of power in which Roote finds himself increasingly cornered. Blame for the pregnancy is placed on a luckless security man, Lamb, who, if not exactly led to the slaughter, is reduced to a state of catatonia.
And the desperate Roote finds himself drawn into the web of guilt by his staff including the openly insubordinate Lush, the mockingly sexual Miss Cutts and the Machiavellian organisation man Gibbs. It is, in the end, a deeply moral play suggesting that state-sanctioned torture and cruelty exist but are inexorably undermined by their disregard of the natural laws.
It is also a biliously funny play and the casting of Simon Russell Beale as Roote ensures that the laughs come thick and fast. He is hilarious as he reacts to the news of one patient's death with a look of thunderstruck horror and, in seeking to identify the impregnated party, dreamily enquires "Quite a sensual sort of face?
I laughed incessantly at Russell Beale's performance but his Roote seems to be in a state of incipient collapse from the off whereas Pinter, when he played the role, showed us a figure of awesome power who only disintegrated as the play progressed. John Simm, however, is flawless as the conniving Gibbs suggesting the perennial company man, even down to the pens in his breast pocket, with all the instincts of a serpent.
And there is a wealth of fine supporting performances. John Heffernan as the mutinous Lush is a dangerous dandy in a purple suit, Harry Melling as the sacrificial Lamb has all the nervous energy of the promotion-hungry newcomer and Indira Varma as Miss Cutts is a sumptuous mix of parodic vamp and the Lady Macbeth of the filing cabinets. All the comedy of Pinter's play, in fact, comes strongly across. And, like the rest of the audience, I found myself roaring at moments such as that when Russell Beale seeks to stuff a wedge of Christmas cake the size of a door-stopper down a subordinate's throat.
It is also good, in Lloyd's production, to see Pinter played with such zip and zest. But I was reminded how Pinter once remarked that The Caretaker was funny only up to a point and it was because of that point that he wrote it. The same, I'd suggest, is true of a politically lethal play like The Hothouse.
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The Hothouse – review
After writing The Hothouse in the winter of and following the initial commercial failure of The Birthday Party , Pinter put the play aside; in he re-read it and directed its first production, at Hampstead Theatre , where it opened on 24 April , transferring to the Ambassadors Theatre on 25 June , and it was first published, also in , by Eyre Methuen. The play is set in an institution whose nature is subject to interpretation; throughout the play, it is ambiguously referred to as both a "rest home" and a "sanitorium" but its "residents" or "patients" are designated anonymously by numbers, not by their names. The professionalism and even sanity of the institution's director, Roote, are undermined by his subordinates: the efficient and ambitious Gibbs, the aptly named alcoholic Lush, and Miss Cutts, Roote's calculating and shrewd mistress who is also involved with Gibbs. After the reported murder of one patient and the rape and resulting pregnancy of another, Roote orders Gibbs to find the perpetrator s , who it appears is Roote himself, and Gibbs supplants his boss as administrator of the corrupt "rest home", whose inmates converge upon the staff, resulting in mayhem. The play has been interpreted as a searingly comic indictment of institutional bureaucracy ; its black comedy and absurdism exposing hierarchical power structures anticipate Pinter's later more overtly political dramatic sketches and plays, such as " The New World Order " , One for the Road , and Mountain Language Merritt, Susan Hollis.
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The Hothouse is a comedy about torture and interrogation. This pacy new production does well to highlight the hilarity of Harold Pinter's play, which effortlessly combines the sinister with the silly. While it may seem bizarre in a play with such weighty subject matter, the actors seem to borrow their best moves from some classic British sitcoms as they send up government bureaucracy. While this over the top production may occasionally become a bit more Are You Being Served?
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