A decade after his death, and Harold Pinter is receiving a salutation to remember at the West End theatre that bears his name. Jamie Lloyd, best known for his explosive, star-studded revivals at Trafalgar Studios, has collected all of the legendary playwright’s one-act works together, and arranged them into a season of seven shows.
He’s roped in a remarkable list of collaborators. Danny Dyer, Martin Freeman, Tamsin Greig, Meera Syal, Mark Rylance, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton and John Simm are all due to make appearances, and Patrick Marber, Lyndsey Turner, Ed Stambollouian and Lia Williams are slated to direct those productions not helmed by Lloyd himself.
The first salvo is a twin assault featuring Antony Sher, Russell Tovey, David Suchet, Kate O’Flynn, Paapa Essiedu and more. Pinter One is a grab-bag of scenes and skits, including the recently discovered sketch The Pres and an Officer. Pinter Two features a double-bill of his early plays: The Lover and The Collection.
But does this opening explosion of Pinter prove praiseworthy? Does its illustrious cast live up to their star-billings? Are we in for an exciting winter with Pinter at the Pinter? Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
There are nine pieces in Pinter One in total, including Mountain Language, Ashes To Ashes, One For The Road, and the recently discovered sketch The Pres and an Officer. This is late, political Pinter.
“It’s pretty harrowing stuff and not the most obvious way to launch the season, but its best moments are very effective,” writes Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★★). “These plays are peopled by suited, sinister men who intimidate, torture and gleefully misuse their power. The threat of rape permeates many of these plays. Women are ripe for violation, as a way of breaking both them and the men who love them.”
“Directed with harrowing exactitude, many of these pieces are about torture and they bruisingly demonstrate that no dramatist reacted with a more sensitised outrage to the warped dynamic between torturer and victim,” adds Paul Taylor (Independent).
Most critics think that, quality-wise, it’s a bit of a mish-mash. “The plethora of curios throw up less an embarrassment of riches than the odd embarrassment of heavy-handedness,” assesses Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★); “It’s a mixed bag, held together by the sheer star power of the cast,” agrees Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★).
It’s only Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★) that can’t stand Pinter One, objecting to Pinter’s politicism. “Even in short plays, Pinter couldn’t half bang on,” he complains.
The play is “brilliant” for Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★), “a study of persecution that is all the more upsetting for the fact that we never actually see any violence”.
It’s “one of the greatest plays ever written” and Lloyd production is “exquisitely agonising” reckons Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★), but some disagree. For Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★), Sher is simply “too obviously deranged, too clearly evil”.
Ashes to Ashes, directed by Lia Williams, is also well-received. It’s staged with “great clarity” according to Crompton and features a “mesmerizingly tense” performance from O’Flynn according to Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★), while David Jays (Sunday Times, ★★★★) reckons the play “emerges as an oblique, unflinching masterwork”.
And the recently discovered sketch, a satirical monologue about an inept American president? Most critics reckon Jon Culshaw’s Trump impersonation is great – he’s “hilariously grotesque”, says Sam Marlowe (Metro, ★★★★) – but that the piece itself is a bit lightweight.
“It’s pretty flimsy,” writes Tripney, “but it’s a cartoon, useful mainly for diffusing the tension before the unrelenting One for the Road.”
The second instalment in this opening duo consists of two of Pinter’s early plays – 1962’s The Lover, featuring Hayley Squires and John Macmillan, and 1961’s The Collection, featuring Squires, Macmillan, Tovey and Suchet.
Does the double-act work? “They’re interesting plays,” ponders Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★), “and their pairing makes sense: here they’re recognisably comedies, a real contrast to the burning horrors of Pinter One.”
The Lover, which follows a married couple through their warped adultery games, divides the critics.
“This is Pinter in funny, absurdist mode, taking an ordinary situation and turning it into something other, filling its spaces with such wonderfully embroidered language, such glee, that the everyday becomes surreal and vice versa,” relates Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★).
“Lloyd is in his element here, dialling up the absurdity, and John MacMillan and Hayley Squires nicely capture the characters’ double nature,” argues Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★), while Marlowe lauds “a vision of miserable marriage and erotic kink in sterile suburbia.”
Others point out a few problems with the play and the production. “It’s the kind of stuff that was deemed faintly shocking in its day – sex games in the suburbs – but it’s more notable for the ugly streak it has running through it, particularly in the way Richard discusses his “whore” and her “body”, observes Tripney (The Stage, ★★★).
The Collection, with its twisted tale of two couples, is also divisive. Lukowski reckons its “more complicated and less successful”, but according to Cavendish, it’s an “invaluable Pinter primer – introducing us to the lethal deadpan, the tactical enigma, the warring (and fragile) masculinity and the toxic civilised veneer he made his stock-in-trade”.
“Another study of hidden lives and infidelity, it has a velvety atmosphere and moments of ripe humour,” describes Hitchings. “It’s also, like Pinter’s best work, full of menace, mystery and wickedly barbed one-liners.”
The laurels here go to Tovey – “impressively impassive and insouciantly alpha” according to Cavendish – and Suchet – “hilariously waspish, toupee-wearing, and sad” according to Taylor.
So which is better, Pinter One or Pinter Two? Early menace or late politicism? Or is that distinction an erroneous one? What does this first foray into the one-act world of Pinter prove about the Nobel-winning writer? And what’s the verdict on the beginning of Lloyd’s extraordinary endeavour?
“What exactly do you learn from the opening?” asks Billington. “That Pinter has the capacity to both terrify and tantalise but, above all, that the division of his works into the political and the personal is ludicrously artificial: whether the context is the public or the private world, he is always fascinated by the roots of power.”
“While Pinter Two seems lighter in tone and texture than Pinter One, it is ultimately exploring the same questions about the unverifiable nature of the past and the fallibility of power,” he concludes. “Together the productions launch what looks like being a compelling journey into the dark heart of Pinterland.”
“The nature of the project is that not all of the material is first rate,” reasons Lukowski. “I don’t particularly want my Pinter light and accessible, and for me Pinter Two felt like a bit of a step down from from the brooding heights of Pinter One. You may feel the opposite. Whatever the case, there’s something for everyone.”
“Taken together,” writes Hemming, “they make a tasty introduction to this celebration of Pinter’s unsettling dramatic world.”
Most critics are similarly positive about everything, and some overwhelmingly so. “Overall, this is theatre to savour that burns as you swallow,” writes Marlowe. “Riveting and deeply disturbing.”
The star ratings are a bit messy – some reviewers give two ratings for each part, some only one – but fours abound, suggesting that Jamie Lloyd’s two-pronged opening extravaganza is generally well-reviewed.
Pinter One is a bit hit-and-miss, most critics agree. Ashes To Ashes and One For The Road are dark, disturbing and delightful, but they’re surrounded by some uneven skits and sketches. Antony Sher is widely acclaimed.
Pinter Two is more consistent: they have their denigrators, but most reviews reckon The Lover and The Collection are two twisted examples of Pinter at his early peak. Russell Tovey and David Suchet’s performances are praised in particular.