Harold Pinter: The Theatre of Menace

First Written for The Reviews Hub May 2016

Theatre of Menace

Harold Pinter: The Theatre of Menace – Smock Alley, Dublin

Writer: Harold Pinter
Reviewer: Laura Marriott

PurpleCoat Theatre Company begins their annual visit to Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre this May with the The Theatre of Menace. More generally known for their electrifying Shakespeare productions, they are attempting something new with a night of short works by Harold Pinter. This is an unusual move, however, it quickly pays off. The Theatre of Menace is a remarkable collection from one of the 20th Century’s most celebrated playwrights. Although the extracts are relatively short, it is long enough to become intrigued by Pinter and inspired to find out more.

The staging is sparse. One table is draped with a white tablecloth, a photo frame perched on top and two chairs is all that takes up the space during the first half. Each new extract is introduced by a light shone onto the brick back wall of the theatre. The performers are lit by spotlights, reflecting the constant interplay between light and shadow that occurs on stage. Throughout the performers only wear black and white. For the second half, a second table topped with wine glasses is bought onto the stage and extra chairs are dotted around. The lack of clutter and lighting gives room for the excellent cast of actors to breathe life into Pinter’s language and the relationships he imagined. The staging adds to the feeling of intimacy, of being allowed to witness something personal taking place.

PurpleCoat has a way of bringing out the ambiguity and darkness that seems to lurk beneath much of Pinter. The characters, often under pressure, find themselves in unusual situations,  such as in A Kind of Alaskaand Mountain Language. Here power and language take centre stage in a truly sinister way that perfectly encapsulates why this collection of Pinter’s has been titled The Theatre of Menace. In other stories, the characters deliver unusual but deeply telling stories. The heartbreak of the one man speech from the second act of The Caretaker is so convincing the audience cannot feel but a little taken by surprise, almost punctured by what they have seen. In contrast to this humour, switches to strangeness and fear in Victoria Station, where it is impossible to fully tell who is good and who is bad. A late night conversation between and taxi driver and his controller begins with hilarity before taking a turn for the surreal and then dangerous. Danger runs throughout the production. The night closes with Celebration. Celebration manages to be both humorous while also revealing of the strained relationships that almost seem to be falling apart on stage.

It would have been wonderful to have seen some of these shorts in their full form, especially as PurpleCoat prove themselves easily able to rise to the challenge of interpreting Pinter’s tragi-comic language. Interestingly they move between his early and later career, avoiding chronology and instead linking the pieces together by theme. In this Theatre of Menace, the characters always seem to be on the edge and, indeed, that audience will find themselves on the edge of their seats from beginning to end.

Runs until 21 May 2016 | Image: PurpleCoat

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score: 4*


Twelfth Night | University Observer

First Published September 2014

With Purple Coat Production’s award winning production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night going on tour, Laura Marriott reviews its recent Dublin performance. For one night only, Liverpool’s award winning Purple Coat Production brought their tour of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre. They are supported by a wide range of celebrated actors including Stephen Fry, Sir Ian McKellen and by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and with good reason.

This powerful performance of one of Shakespeare’s most entertaining love stories brought out the humour, wit and tragedy that marks the uneven path of love. Twins Viola and Sebastian are separated in a violent shipwreck leaving them washed ashore in a strange country.

Believing her brother to be dead, Viola assumes his image and identity in order to make her way in a man’s world. This leads to a tangled web of mistaken identity and confusion as Viola crosses paths with a host of characters including unsuccessful lovers Olivia and Orsino. Falling in love with Orsino, Viola finds herself cornered, unable to proclaim her love and yet at the same time is pursued by the love struck Olivia.

By choosing actors without physical similarities to play twins this version played with the idea of love at first sight and, suggested that by disguising their appearances they were able to find a love based on more than just outward appearances.

As Olivia finds herself smitten with who she believes Viola to be, the cast play with the idea of identity and homosexuality. This culminates with Olivia finding herself nearly marrying a woman before accidentally becoming involved with the real Sebastian. Performed in the Boys School of Smock Alley theatre, Purple Coat bought a sense of summer holiday romances and holidays to the tail end of the Irish summer. The theatre works excellently acoustically and its limited space pushes the actors to a greater performance.

This worked particularly well as we saw court steward Malvolio being forced to question his sanity when interrogated by the witty and surprisingly lyrical fool. Here the audience were brought on a journey through identity, sanity and madness that raised many questions for both the characters as well as the audience.

The talented and vibrant cast capitalised on the danger and excitement found in love. Like many of Shakespeare plays, Twelfth Night came dangerously close to crashing into tragedy, before being salvaged as a romance. Each actor brought something special to the play, making this an incredibly watchable and enjoyable performance by a rising star company.

Hamlet – Smock Alley, Dublin

Writer: William Shakespeare


In the second part of a Shakespeare double bill at Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre Purple Coat Productions present Hamlet. Hamlet (Katie King) is a young prince who is greeted by the ghost of her (Hamlet is played very well by a woman) recently deceased father. The ghost tells her that he was murdered for his crown by his treacherous brother Claudius (Lee Burnitt); who then went on to marry his widow, and Hamlet’s mother, less than two months later. Hamlet meditates on and attempts to avenge her father’s murder.

An audio-visual introduction sets the scene. It is 1980s Liverpool – birthplace of Purple Coat Productions, where rich and poor live check by jowl and there is a constant feeling of dissatisfaction; a city on the edge. The main way that this theme is carried through the play is in the costumes. Stone washed denim, Doc martens, gold jewellery, shiny leggings and bomber jackets. Purple Coat’s Denmark is a hot bed of lust and incest. The characters are fully fleshed out and little twists are made on their actions. One side effect of this is that in the first half of the play Hamlet is portrayed as being the most sane, sensible and normal character. She does not seem mad or absurd. The world around her is licentious and illegal things happen regularly in the face of the madness around her Hamlet anger and hesitation make sense. This is something which is very rarely achieved on stage but Purple Coat make it look easy.

Ophelia (Paula Lee) is a notoriously tricky rôle to pin down however in this performance Lee was one of the stand-out stars. She managed to make such vague utterances as ‘I know not what to think’ seem clear; language as an act of survival. An added element of danger and intrigue is introduced through her interactions with the men in her life. The audience first see her with her brother Laertes. Soon to leave Denmark, he makes it clear that his interests in Ophelia are not entirely familial. He has a sexual interest in her; forcing his intentions onto her. This is followed by the entrance of Polonius and his famous speech made up of now common sayings and advice, such as ‘neither a borrower or a lender be’. In this production Polonius is not a bumbling, pompous old man. He is terrifying. Going one step further he rapes his own daughter. The scene is so well acted that it seems to fit perfectly with Shakespeare’s text and it adds weight to Ophelia’s language and eventual madness. Further, Claudius has a sinister edge; he is a dangerous man prepared to kill and maim to get what he wants. He is excellently portrayed as being angry, violent, controlling. He is partnered by another difficult to capture female character: Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Caitlin Clough). Often seem as a sexually incontinent rather stupid woman here she is cocaine snorting young woman who loves her son but seems to be over taken by the events around her. All she has to offer her new husband is her body and comfort; and yet she is played delicately.

Purple Coat have managed to do something very rare and make the events in one of the world’s best known plays, seem surprising. There is an undercurrent of danger which is electrifying. As the play reached its final act, although many of the audience will know the speech, they will not know what to expect next. This is a rare and fantastic feat that is not likely to be repeated in the near future. This performance will make you see Hamlet anew and is not to be missed on its regrettably short Dublin run.

Photo courtesy of Smock Alley. Runs Until April 11th 2015.

Review Overview

The Public Reviews’ Score: 5*


A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Smock Alley, Dublin

First Published April 2015


Writer: William Shakespeare

Purple Coat Productions have returned to Dublin’s Smock Alley theatre after last year’s triumphant Twelfth Night with a Shakespearean double-bill. Purple Coat are presenting both Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the Smock Alley Theatre stage. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s best loved and most performed plays. This means that often the audience are aware of events before they happen and the theatre company have the added challenge of making their production fresh and relevant. This is something that Purple Coat do by playing up the humour; props, physicality and voice intonation helping to flesh out the comedy that runs from the beginning to the end. The stage of the Boys School at Smock Alley Theatre helps with this. It is a small intimate theatre in a beautiful brick building that was once a boy’s school and at another time a church. It forces the players to be close to the audience and makes interaction easier.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a tale of love, magic and loyalty. As Duke Theseus of Athens and the Amazon Queen Hippolyta prepare to marry, four young lovers find themselves unable to marry their loved ones. Instead of accepting their fate, they take action. The plot moves to a forest; the realm of Fairyland which is overseen by King and Queen of the fairies Oberon and Titania. When their worlds collide magical deeds, love and humour are the result. Into this interconnected chaos walk the Rude Mechanicals, a band of amateur actors who intend to perform a play at the royal nuptials.

The scene in the woods where Lysander and Demetrius fight over Helena’s love is particularly funny. Never has silly string, shaving foam, wigs and socks been used so successfully to comic effect in a Shakespeare play. Further the relationship between Oberon and Puck (or Batman and Robin as they were also known) was very well done. The harsher edge was taken off Oberon in favour of a lighter tone. This is something that was done throughout and although the play was very funny some may lament the loss of the harder edge; after all Hermia does potentially face death if she does not agree to her father’s choice of husband for her. Even in one of the most magical of Shakespeare’s plays there is a darker undertone.

Over all the cast, in which women outnumber men approximately two to one, work well together and set changes are relatively smooth. Their timing and pace keeps the audience’s attention and maintain the humour throughout. This ensemble manage to balance the language with physicality and staging; allowing the magic of Shakespeare’s prose to shine through. The addition of modern music works surprisingly well (somehow making the inclusion of Tragedy by Steps seem perfectly natural). This modern, energetic re – interpretation stays close to the original text but uses costumes in particular to bring a new edge to the show. A few of the cast do need however to work on voice projection if they are to work in larger theatres in the future. Purple Coat Productions, a Liverpool based theatre company, have been doing very well over the past few years, receiving support from Stephen Fry and Sir Ian McKellen among others and will hopefully continue to bring Shakespeare to the Dublin stage for many years to come.

 Photo courtesy of Smock Alley. The double bill of Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream Runs Until April 11th 2015.

Review Overview

The Public Reviews’ Score: 4*