The Hothouse is touted as Pinter’s funniest play. A wry smile at a sharp line is easy to imagine, but can Pinter really be relied on for laughs? The Lyttelton provides the setting for a mysterious institution staffed by equally mysterious people, and Jo Fletcher-Cross was in the first night audience to witness the strange goings-on…
Written in the winter of 1958, Harold Pinter then put aside The Hothouse and went on to write his classic 1959 play The Caretaker. It wasn’t until 1979 that he looked at it again and decided that it was the right time for a production of this dark and cryptic play. At the time it was written, it must have seemed like some kind of nightmare vision of the future, but a few decades later, with East and West mired deep in the Cold War, and surveillance and subterfuge the common currency of international relations, the themes of The Hothouse would have been all too relevant. In today’s suspicious political climate they continue to have a chilling significance, perhaps even more so with our growing awareness of the underhanded investigative techniques of Western governments.
Plunged into darkness and blasted with loud live jazz, the curtain rising on Hildegard Bechtler’s astonishing set feels like being flung into another world. Although the era is theoretically unspecified, the design is firmly late 1950s, backed up by sharply tailored costumes. It is immediately obvious this is some kind of institution, and most likely a hospital; the two-storey set reveals a large office and staff room painted the kind of dirty cream that only government buildings are ever decorated in, an empty, dishevelled room of concrete and heavy doors above, and corridors with strip lighting stretching off from each floor. The sense of claustrophobic space created is truly incredible; it really does feel like there is a huge, sprawling Victorian building onstage.
Head of the institution, Roote (Stephen Moore), is looking out of the sash windows down to the yard below as the play opens; outside it is snowing. Bad news is brought to him by Gibbs (Finbar Lynch), a young pretender to the institutional throne; patient 6457 has died and, even more shockingly, patient 6459 has just given birth to a baby boy and claims the father could be almost anyone on the staff. It is not turning out to be a good Christmas day.
Just who these patients are – or any of the patients – is never clear. Are they political dissidents, hopeless psychiatric cases, dangerous criminals? They could be any or all of these; all we know is that Roote claims to try and help them as much as possible. The greasy and knowing Lush (Paul Ritter), who does some of the best hair flicking with his hideous fringe that I’ve ever seen, reveals that it is a rest home, but that is as much information as we are getting. And even that could be a lie.
Some higher power is hinted at; a heavy-handed government with the capacity to turn a blind eye to dubious undertakings as long as the correct paperwork is filed. The staff are in the despotic grip of Roote and his unseen superiors, and their lack of personal communication suggests that private conversation is a privilege rather than a right in this desperate place. The suggestively named new-ish recruit Lamb is only too keen to participate in an experiment proposed by Gibbs, but his over-eager questioning would seem to be key to his fate.
Ian Rickson’s direction is powerful and bold, with fast scene changes and exchanges of dialogue so sharp you could cut yourself. Flashes of co-ordinated movement and subtle, strange body language signal the involvement of Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, and superb evocative lighting by Peter Mumford cleverly highlights each and every gesture.
Despite – or perhaps because of – the hideous themes explored, The Hothouse is often absurdly funny, the unease of the staff effectively reflecting the life we are living today and holding up a mirror to the sometimes ludicrous behaviour of those in power, and those who carry out their orders. Who is living in The Hothouse? Perhaps we are.