Harold Pinter’s plays are ideally suited to the intensity of live theatre; William Friedkin’s 1968 adaptation of Pinter’s boarding house domination-fest is one of the best examples of the good cinematic transfer. Described as a Comedy of Menace, The Birthday Party is not recommended if you’re looking for ideas about hosting a celebratory bash; it’s dour, sinister and uncomfortable to watch, much as the maker intended.
Friedkin was heading for the A-list of directors, with The Boys in The Band and The French Connection on their way in the next few years. He got an ideal cast; Robert Shaw is one of the great screen performers, and works wonders as Stanley, an introverted man who is hiding out in a dingy seaside bed and breakfast that rarely has visitors. Until two men, Goldberg and McCann arrive, played by Sydney Tafler and Patrick Magee. What’s going on? Is Stanley a terrorist, or a criminal, or an innocent man being terrorised by two hoods? Pinter plays his cards close to his chest; even the landlady (Dandy Nichols) and her husband can’t quite get a handle on things. But Stanley’s birthday party is a working definition of an ordeal, with asides and jibes eventually crystallising into violence during a party game, and a bitter coda demonstrating the emotional cost of the evening.
Pinter extrapolated The Birthday Party from a conversation he’d had; Stanley’s description of his career as a concert pianist is lifted from real life, although in both the play and the film, it’s almost certainly a lie. No-one is telling the truth here, and that’s part of the issue; Pinter pre-dates the Fake News era by giving the characters and the audience little to hang on to. Ambiguity runs rife; the claustrophobic setting is oppressive, and Friedkin is faithful to the letter of play, dragging things out for a painful but rewarding two hours plus.
For a director best known for his blockbusters, Friedkin knew how to film a play; fans of his later Killer Joe will find the same nailed-down quality here. Although the Blind’s Man Bluff sequence goes over the score with chroma-key that’s very 1968, this is a strong record of some blazing acting, with Shaw, Nichols and Macgee all on top form. It may not be a lot of laughs, but it’s a key play in 20th century theatre, and The Birthday Party is well worth returning to in 2020.