Law (Derek Godfrey) finds his cosy basement flat invaded by an old friend, Stott (Pinter) and Stott’s young and mainly silent girlfriend Jane (Kika Markham). Whilst initially pleased to see Stott, Law is less enthused when the pair begin to take ruthless charge of his surroundings ….
Although the third and final Pinter play from his Theatre 625 trilogy may initially seems to be on familiar ground (a mysterious individual indulging in oblique power games) The Basement quickly evolves into something much more interesting than might have been expected from the opening ten minutes.
Based on the first few scenes, the television viewer of 1967 would no doubt have expected a linear development of the opening theme. We have three central protagonists – the ebullient Law, the monosyllabic and slightly threatening Stott and the unfathomable Jane – and a well designed basement flat for them to co-exist in. With a running time of just under an hour, there seems ample scope for the three of them to clash.
And so they do, just not in the way that was probably expected. Whilst Tea Party featured some jarring cuts and fantasy sequences, these are much more pronounced in The Basement. Indeed, it’s possible to have some debate as to where reality ends and fantasy takes over (the final scene – delightfully circular in nature – floats the possibility that everything we’ve witnessed has been untrue).
The first jarring reality shift comes ten minutes in, as the action abruptly switches to a beach. Whilst Jane makes an elaborate sandcastle, the ever-voluble Law does his best to stake his claim as Stott’s true friend and soul-mate. Stott meanwhile, is somewhat distanced from this action. And then we quickly cut back to the flat – and in such a way which suggests that the whole beach scene was just Law’s fantasy.
Is it a good rule of thumb that any scene set outside the environs of the flat is fake? That could be so, but then some inside also have the same dreamlike quality. Time certainly seems to pass in a non-linear fashion (one minute there’s snow on the ground, the next moment it’s summer) whilst the décor of the flat also changes from scene to scene.
The final few scenes, although flat based, are clearly fantasy (Law and Stott, each stripped to the waist, attack each other with broken bottles) although whilst the men are scrapping, Jane is shown to be working in the kitchen, which appears to anchor her – if not them – in reality. This switch between the unreal and real is fascinating.
Although The Basement was staged several times (the London production of 1970 with Donald Pleasence as Law, Barry Foster as Stott and Stephanie Beacham as Jane sounds particularly intriguing) the strength of the piece is definitely its ability to rapidly change from one reality to another. Something that was simple to achieve on television (provided you had the time and the budget) but much more difficult to achieve on stage. I’d certainly be intrigued to see a staged production of the play, but I think it probably works best as a television entity.
Critical reception was mixed, but most writers had positive things to say, even if some had to confess that they didn’t understand it all. Kenneth Eastaugh, writing in the Daily Mirror, decided that it was “a unique master course for everybody who ever aspired to write” although this was qualified by some criticism of Pinter’s performance whilst he felt that Markham was merely “adequate” in her role.
J.D.S. Halworth in The Stage and Television Today also found some fault with Pinter’s Stott, although he/she was much more positive about Markham (both critics agreed that Derek Godfrey indulged in some skilful playing).
Max Wilkinson in the Coventry Herald declared that although “I am not certain what the play was about or what it was saying … I will confidently assert it was masterly”.
The Basement might be on familiar Pinter ground (unsettling and oblique) but it’s enlivened by some humorous moments. His final original work for television, it’s yet another which has aged rather well.