“One has to be so scrupulous about language,” purrs the interrogator in one of Harold Pinter’s most chilling short plays, the devastating One for the Road. Words are powerful things.
Intended to celebrate and commemorate Harold Pinter on the 10th anniversary of his death at the theatre that now bears his name, Jamie Lloyd’s ambitious Pinter at the Pinter season features all 20 of his one-act plays, as well as a series of little-known poems and sketches. These have been split into seven productions featuring a remarkable cast including many of Pinter’s former collaborators.
The first batch of plays, Pinter One (★★★★), focuses on his late political work. It’s pretty harrowing stuff and not the most obvious way to launch the season, but its best moments are very effective.
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.
In Mountain Language, for example, Kate O’Flynn and Maggie Steed play two women trying to visit their imprisoned sons and husbands in a world in which their language is banned by the state. Paapa Essiedu spends several of these early pieces lashed to a chair, bloodied or quivering with fear. Soutra Gilmour’s versatile yet bunker-like set adds to the ominous atmosphere.
Given the intention of the project to include everything he wrote, there’s an inevitable variability to the work. Newly discovered satirical piece The Pres and an Officer is a case in point. It feels pretty flimsy. Lloyd plays it for laughs, casting Jon Culshaw as the Calippo-skinned president of the United States. He has a mastery of Donald Trump’s gestures, the petulant puffing of his cheeks, but it’s a cartoon, albeit a disturbing one, useful mainly for diffusing the tension before the unrelenting One for the Road.
This is by far the strongest piece in this first batch. Premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1984, it’s a merciless piece of writing. Antony Sher plays the terrifyingly avuncular interrogator of a man (Essiedu), his wife (O’Flynn) and their young son. He veers from making overt threats to almost-casual conversation. He stands appallingly close to them. He uses his words to break them. He occasionally helps himself to a splash of whisky – “one for the road” – though he never leaves. We see no violence. It’s all implied. But that’s so much worse. Sher exudes menace. He breathes it. When he hovers over the young child, casually touching his hair, it’s almost unbearable to watch. The play is incredibly disturbing and upsetting, but by this stage in his career and in his politics Pinter believed that people needed to look at things in the world that repelled them.
After the interval, Lia Williams directs the oblique Ashes to Ashes, a piece from 1996. The terrain is more familiarly Pinter-esque. A couple, played by O’Flynn and Essiedu (both excellent), have a conversation that’s sometimes tender, sometimes confrontational. At times she seems to recall the pain of being forced to relinquish her baby to the Nazis, though it’s unclear whether this is a dream. The whole of their strange duet has a foggy quality. It’s mesmeric.
In Pinter Two (★★★), Lloyd revisits a double-bill of Pinter shorts from the early 1960s that he previously directed at this theatre a decade ago with a cast that then included Gina McKee and Charlie Cox.
In the first of these, The Lover, Hayley Squires and John Macmillan play Sarah and Richard, a married couple who like to role-play as each other’s lovers. This, it seems, is how they get their kicks – how they escape the constraints and pressures of their life together.
Lloyd’s production plays up the comedy of the situation, a quality enhanced by Gilmour’s bright pink set. Squires and Macmillan speak in exaggeratedly clipped accents and make small talk about the window blinds when they’re playing ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, but as ‘lovers’ they indulge in knee-trembling sessions under the dining table. Increasingly, however, he feels uneasy about this situation though she is keen for it to continue.
It’s the kind of stuff that was deemed 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. Even if this is facet of the performance on their part, there’s an undercurrent of repulsion to it that goes unchallenged.
The Collection, written in 1961, is also about fantasy and the potential of infidelity. Stella (Squires again) tells her husband James (Macmillan) that she has had a liaison with Russell Tovey’s Bill in a Leeds hotel room. Bill is also in a relationship with Harry, an older man, played by a vinegar-tongued David Suchet. James comes to their house to confront Bill but they end up engaging in a strange kind of flirtation.
Tovey elongates every word he utters in an unsettling way. He sprawls in an armchair in his tight white pants, while Suchet sits crisply on the other side of the stage, knees nipped together.
The truth about whether or not Bill and Stella got up to anything together or merely talked about what they might get up to continues to shift. It remains ambiguous. Both of these pieces are tautly performed – Suchet’s tart delivery is a delight – but it’s hard to completely disentangle this double-bill from the 1960s sexual attitudes it is both a comment on and a product of.
Though the quality of some of the pieces is variable, these first two instalments in Lloyd’s thrillingly ambitious project allow audiences to see great actors work with Pinter’s less frequently performed material and whet the appetite for what’s to come.