Some are sketches, some are even briefer – poems recited – and some are one-act plays. Pinter at the Pinter is quite a varied season, at least judging by ‘Pinter One’ and ‘Pinter Two’. The series will eventually get to ‘Pinter Seven’, but for now, there’s a set of politically charged material in Pinter One, and light(er) hearted material exploring domestic life in Pinter Two. The extended pauses with which Pinter plays are renowned for are there, as is the ambiguity, though this isn’t universal. Take ‘The Pres and An Officer’, not published until after Lady Antonia Fraser, Pinter’s second wife, discovered it amongst her late husband’s papers. The only Pinteresque pause in that sketch happens when Pres (Jon Culshaw, credibly looking and sounding like the 45th President of the United States) suddenly realises he’s made an error with disastrous consequences. It’s a hoot, aside from an American in the row behind me at the performance I attended, who practically hollered, “It would be ‘funny’ if it was funny!”
That fellow theatregoer probably found ‘One For The Road’ more to his liking, not because of its humour, but because it is devoid of it, deliberately so. Nicolas (Antony Sher) is some sort of figure of authority in a correctional facility. The wider context is a totalitarian regime – Victor (Paapa Essiedu) and his wife Gila (Kate O’Flynn) are in there for reasons unknown, at least to the audience, while their son Nicky (Quentin Deborne), of primary school age, is inside for spitting and kicking soldiers, and is therefore considered, as Stalin would have it, an enemy of the state.
It’s uncomfortable viewing, as is ‘Mountain Language’, even more draconian as a military coup has taken place, and one of the many orders and decrees is that the dialect of the play’s title can no longer be spoken. But an Elderly Woman (Maggie Steed) knows no other language, and therefore technically can no longer speak at all. Until that is, the regime flippantly decides to change the rules about who can say what to whom. But by then she is too shocked by intermediary actions by the authorities that happened in front of her face to open her mouth at all.
Who is in control is more ambiguous in the longest of the Pinter One plays, ‘Ashes to Ashes’. Rebecca (Kate O’Flynn) is being questioned by her husband Devlin (Paapa Essiedu) about the past, and more specifically, about a previous lover. I couldn’t quite place Rebecca’s state of mind – when merely recalling events that happened some years ago, there’s a noticeable change in personality, while an echo, voiced by Essiedu, in the final moments of the play, irritated me initially, before I found it amusing. But any laughter at that point would have been inappropriate, given the narrative, so the irritation swiftly resumed. Or, to put it another way, it would have been ‘funny’ if it was funny.
Pinter Two comprises a one-act play in each half, and the set design (Soutra Gilmour) reflects the bright and colourful nature of the plays, as the relative darkness reflected the heavy undertones of Pinter One. In ‘The Lover’ there is some interesting roleplay that goes on between Richard (John Macmillan) and Sarah (Hayley Squires). But it is ‘The Collection’ that, if anything, provides a response to the idea mooted in some quarters that Pinter was, in a word, a misogynist. For all the to-ing and fro-ing, phone calls at ridiculous times (four in the morning in one case) and Harry (David Suchet), James (John Macmillan) and Bill (Russell Tovey) all trying to get to the bottom of what is really going on, it appears only Stella (Hayley Squires) knows the truth. She seems to be enjoying being the gatekeeper of information. Oh, and there’s also a cat to be admired. Yes, an actual one.
A good balance overall between the politically punchy material and the softer crowd-pleasers, the Pinter at the Pinter season has, thus far, demonstrated the breadth and versatility of Pinter’s writing. Sublime acting demonstrates that people and politics go hand in hand.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Thursday 6th September – Saturday 20th October 2018
One for the Road
The New World Order
The Pres and an Officer
Directed by Jamie Lloyd
Ashes to Ashes
Directed by Lia Williams
Opening the Pinter at the Pinter season is a dynamic collection of Harold Pinter’s most potent and dangerous political plays.
The incendiary One for The Road is Pinter at his most terrifying. A ruthless government official interrogates a dissident and his family, but is the torturer more tortured than his victims? The New World Order explores how the abuse of power is legitimised in the name of freedom and democracy, as two brutal interrogators prepare to inflict their terrible punishment on a blind-folded insurgent. Pinter investigates the suppression of ideas and the supposed threat of non-conformity in Mountain Language: a group of captives attempt to find a voice when their shared language is banned by the state, and the World Premiere production of Pinter’s newly-discovered satirical sketch, The Pres and an Officer.
The evening culminates with Ashes to Ashes, a richly atmospheric and compelling play in which the dark nightmare of human atrocity infiltrates a couple’s living room. Directed by award-winning actress and long-time Pinter collaborator, Lia Williams.
Cast includes Paapa Essiedu, Jonathan Glew, Kate O’Flynn, Jonjo O’Neill, Antony Sher, Maggie Steed and the voice of Michael Gambon.
Directed by Jamie Lloyd
Thursday 13th September – Saturday 20th October 2018
Two miniature comedic masterpieces from the 1960s, The Lover and The Collection, which explore secrets, lies and seduction, are directed by ‘major Pinter interpreter’ (Financial Times), Jamie Lloyd.
Playful and provocative, The Lover features a conventional, suburban couple in unconventional circumstances. The Collection, hailed as one of the outstanding plays of the 20th Century by Laurence Olivier, delves into the intriguing mystery of two London couples linked by sexual desire and a quest for supremacy.
Cast includes John Macmillan, Hayley Squires, David Suchet and Russell Tovey.
Buy Tickets for The Harold Pinter Theatre