Pinter at the Pinter One review ****

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Pinter at the Pinter One

Harold Pinter Theatre, 18th October

  • Press Conference
  • Precisely
  • The New World Order
  • Mountain Language
  • American Football
  • The Pres and an Officer
  • Death
  • One for the Road
  • Ashes to Ashes

Just so you are clear. These are plays by Harold Pinter. Did I mention that?

A combination of diary clashes and me hoping for ticket prices to come my way, (always fun playing Economics 101 with West End theatres), meant that I missed out on Part Two of Jamie Lloyd’s season of all of the one act plays of Harold Pinter, (and many other morsels besides). So no The Lover or The Collection and therefore no Hayley Squires, John MacMillan, Russell Tovey or David Suchet. A shame but rest assured dear reader I am signed up to the rest.

Now Pinter is an acquired taste but once acquired is rarely relinquished. The Lover is a two hander about an apparently adulterous couple which sounds like it went down well although, as with much of Pinter the surface misogyny can discomfort, though being Pinter there is always sufficient ambivalence to undermine the apparent premise. For me HP’s unrelenting picking away at human weakness is not gender bound but I can see why others might disagree. The Collection from 1961 covers similar territory in a similar way but with two couples, one gay, sharing a stage, linked by a possible affair.

Anyway probably better if the Tourist focusses on the programme he did see. Here, in the first half, we are in the world of late Pinter, with politics as the subject, and specifically the excesses which can be visited on the individual by a totalitarian state. Some of the pieces imagine more brutal and sadistic scenarios than others but all can be seen as warnings of what can happen when power corrupts. Their very lack of specificity is meant to show that this sort of oppression is only a few short steps away even in a liberal democracy. Not all of the pieces are up with Pinter’s best, and they have never really been, to be frank, universally appreciated even by criterati, but when they work, notably for me here in Mountain Language, they are very effective.

Press Conference is exactly that. A sketch where a Minister of Culture, who was the head of the secret police, responds about the state’s attitude to children. His brusque matter of fact responses – “We distrusted children if they were the children of subversives. We abducted them and brought them up properly. Or we killed them” – is very funny but also very chilling precisely because Jonjo O’Neill’s politician is speaking as if he were right here, right now in Britain. Precisely is another short sketch where Maggie Steed and Kate O’Flynn play a pair of toff establishment types debating a number, 20 million or maybe more, which turns out is a body count.

Next up was The New World Order from 1991 which saw a cocksure Des (Jonjo O’Neill) and a pumped up Lionel (Paapa Essiedu) discussing how they will torture the gagged, blindfolded and naked man (Jonathan Glew) in the cell with them. No physical violence, the menace is all in the language, which is almost stereotypically Pinteresque in its banal tone. These are almost caricatures of modern day torturers, in sharp suits and, in Paapa’s case, aviator shades. They are trying to impress each other as much as scare the victim. They could be Goldberg and McCann. Taking pleasure in their work. Once again Brits not Americans as in the original premiere. Pinter nails that uninhibited, exuberant arousal that seems to inhabit the cruel.

Mountain Language is an better piece of drama though. Written in 1988 apparently in response to the treatment of the Kurdish people, Pinter actually saw this as a more universal attack on regimes where minorities are victimised through the suppression of language. It is an altogether more expressive piece as Jonjo O”Neill’s callous Sergeant, assisted by the officious voice of Michael Gambon (who took the role at the premiere), and Paapa Essiedu’s Officer, work out want to do with, variously, Kate O’Flynn’s young woman, her elderly woman relative Maggie Steed who can only speak the “mountain language”, Jonathan Glew, this time hooded, and Pappa Essiedu doubling as a prisoner. The prison/detention centre is revealed as a series of rooms in Soutra Gilmour’s suitably depressing cuboid set, all dark walls and utilitarian chairs. No beginning or end but we do get the movement through the set and the contrasts between the characters. And our first proper sight of the mesmerising presence of Kate O’Flynn.

She then bounds on as a US military type for Pinter’s poem American Football written in response to the Gulf War and which satirises the aggressive triumphalism of the victor. This was followed by The Pres and an Officer, a sketch which sees John Sessions impersonating our current POTUS alongside Jonjo O’Niell as the top brass tasked with issuing his orders, here to nuke London, albeit accidentally, reflecting the president’s geographical confusions. I’ll be honest it is a bit soft and one-dimensional but, written in 2008, it is remarkable for its prescience. The presence of a narcissistic, ill-educated, populist bully in the White House clearly wouldn’t have surprise HP who died on Christmas Eve a few weeks before Obama was sworn in.

This was followed by Maggie Steed performing’s HP’s moving short poem Death about the registration of an unknown corpse. Then One for the Road from 1984 the most substantial and well-known of HP’s political plays. It was prompted by HP reading Jacobo Timerman’s book on torture during the Argentinian military dictatorship, but, as you might expect, reveals no specific setting. There is no on-stage violence but the references to the off-stage mutilation of Victor (Paapa Essiedu), the multiple rape of his wife Gila (Kate O’Flynn) and the implied murder of their son Nicky (Quentine Deborne) is upsetting enough. Anthony Sher plays Nicholas the precise officer (“one has to be so scrupulous about language”) who represents the totalitarian regime. He shifts from matey pen-pusher to psychotic tormentor in the blink of an eye though Sher wisely tones down the apoplexy. Think O’Brien in Room 101. And Hannah Arendt’s rule of nobody. Nicholas has all the tools of the state at his disposal, and, it seems, years of experience, but still seems troubled by what he is doing. I can’t quite put my finger on why, though it may be because I am not Mr Sher’s greatest admirer, but this felt a little over-egged to me. It is still a mighty fine play though.

After this varied and variable dissection of the roots and risks of totalitarianism, Act Two ostensibly sees a return to the domestic with two-hander Ashes to Ashes. Yet by contrasting this, here directed by Lia Williams, with the Act One pieces directed by Jamie Lloyd, what we really see is HP’s insights into one theme, the use and abuse of power. Kate O’Flynn is Rebecca who is being “interrogated” by her “estranged” husband Devlin, Paapa Essiedu, but who has done what to whom, and what they each say about how they feel, is even more slippery than usual for HP. Maybe they aren’t married, but lovers. Maybe he is threatening her, or she is mocking him. Is Rebecca describing her dreams? What does the story about the police sirens mean, or the pen? Rebecca’s responses to Devlin’s prompts are oblique to say the least. There are pauses and silences galore and some harrowing imagery. not the least at the end with the apparent description of women, or a woman, or Rebecca herself, being separated from her baby en route to a concentration camp. The whole thing swirls around, and, with acting of this quality, draws you in. In any other hands it would be utter b*llocks but with Pinter the language makes it compelling if ultimately impenetrable.

HP’s reputation and casts should be enough to persuade the uninitiated and/or the curious. Jamie Lloyd can push the envelope a bit far on occasion but he is a master in Pinter. So sign up. If I had to choose I would say 3 and 6. More to follow …..

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