The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter

When: June 18-28, 2024 Where: Baxter Masambe Theatre, Cape Town
Director: Aidan Scott,
Performers: Brent Palmer and Jock Kleynhans
Design: Cameron Moody  

“Who clears up after we’re gone? I’m curious about that. Who does the clearing up?” Gus asks Ben in Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter. Harold Pinter’s classic one act, two hander (1957) is on in the Baxter Masambe Theatre until June 28, 2024, performed by Brent Palmer (Ben) and Jock Kleynhans (Gus). Beyond the suspense and what happens or doesn’t happen, after everything is over and people have left the room, what happens next? Who is accountable for what has occurred? Who cleans up the mess – physical and emotional?

The Dumb Waiter is a very existential play with a grippingly compulsive text with a pithy repartee between Ben and Gus. They are two hit men, waiting in a basement for orders. As they wait and shoot the breeze about food and argue terminology about boiling the kettle (“light the kettle” versus “light the gas”), eating and pondering news items from the newspaper, they get embroiled in a side-show with a dumb waiter contraption (a lift for food).

In the basement – which is like a prison – it is claustrophobic and uncomfortable as they watch and size each other. People irk each other in the way that they tie their shoe laces (how the play opens) and engage in personal grooming and this is brilliantly invoked by Pinter and beautifully conjured up by Palmer and Kleynhans. The tension is flexed by Aiden Scott in the director’s seat.

The Masambe is a theatre in a basement and the lack of windows and fresh air (there is air con), heightens the sense of the claustrophobia of the characters, sealed off from the world. When they are done, doing what they are going to do, what will be the outcome? They are dumb, clueless about what is happening in their career trajectory. They cannot fathom what is going on above them, beyond the confines of the basement. The dumb waiter chute is a catalyst, perhaps the triggering mechanism in this narrative. I am not going to plot spoil.

The Dumb Waiter fits into the ambit of Theatre of the Absurd but it is also a morality tale. Gus is uncomfortable in his conscience (who cleans up after us?). Ben is rather sanguine about a job needed to be done. In-between, they navigate nodes of disconnects across power and social-cultural differences.

It is wonderful to see Palmer and Kleynhans breathe energy into a text which can come across as flat because of the deadpan dialogue about “nothing”. The commonplace is elevated by the actors coiling around their characters; the restlessness, frustration and competitiveness.The production design by Cameron Moody amplifies and contains the coiled energy between the hit men, enigmatically ominous; urban thrill-drama with dark mirth. This production of the Dumb Waiter is gripping and compulsive with superb performances by Brent Palmer and Jock Kleynhans.

✳ Brent Palmer and Jock Kleynhans in Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, Baxter Masambe Theatre, Cape Town, June 2024. Pic supplied.