Paul T Davies reviews Pinter One comprising One For The Road, The New World Order, Mountain Language, Ashes To Ashes and The Pres and an Officer now playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre as part of the Pinter at the Pinter Season.
It’s an ambitious and thrilling undertaking for the Jamie Lloyd Company to stage all of Pinter’s short plays, together with some of his poems and sketches, all marking the tenth anniversary of the playwright’s death and staged at the theatre that bears his name. It gives a unique opportunity to see rarely performed work. If the first two collections are a sign of things to come, this will be an enthralling theatrical experience.
Pinter One brings together the political, and Jamie Lloyd has curated a collection of political pieces that form a cohesive whole. We enter to triumphant music, we are in a Fascist, (or Communist?), state, but the music is distinctly Last Night of the Proms, associated with a certain brand of Englishness. The Minister of Culture, who used to be Head of the Secret Police, welcomes us to his press conference, all smiles and ticker tape. Jonjo O’Neill is superbly smarmy, in control of the double speak, and the laughter quickly dies when he discusses that the way forward was to kill the children and rape the women. We see this embodied in One For The Road, which closes the first half. Throughout the first half, O’Neill is a menacing presence, carrying out orders; with language the weapon of torture-we actually see no violence committed. What struck me time and again was Pinter’s mastery of language; too much has been made of the “Pinter pause”. For example, in Precisely, Maggie Steed and Kate O’Flynn play businessmen Stephen and Roger, who are discussing twenty million. We assume they are discussing money, but Pinter adds one word. Twenty million dead. Then he adds another. Twenty million dead precisely. The horror is brought into sharp clarity.
Throughout Maggie Steed brings a devastating dignity to her roles, reading the poem Death, but especially as the mother in Mountain Language, a brutal piece about ethnic cleansing and removal of language. Paapa Essiedu, excellent throughout, is heartbreaking as a prisoner, Steed as his mother, and in the centre of it Kate O’Flynn makes brief, tender contact with her husband, a ghostly presence by Jonathan Glew. It is superb, and just as the collection begins to feel like something that has to endured, the mood is lightened by The Pres and an Officer, with a guest star- President Trump! It feels as if it was written today, in fact much of the text throughout feels freshly minted. The first act ends with the powerful One For The Road, with Antony Sher the benevolent Uncle type figure that just happens to be head of a torture factory. His approach of gentleness and kindness, the banality of phrases such as “one for the road?” containing so much threat meted out to Essiedu and O’Flynn, and the word “was” has never slapped you in the face so precisely.
The second half is the late Pinter period one act Ashes To Ashes, and O’Flynn and Essiedu provide a link to the first half by playing Rebecca and Devlin, a seemingly ordinary suburban couple. She relates a tale of sexual assault, where she had to “kiss his fist”, her assailant choking her. Her fear of sirens at first connects her strongly to One For The Road; it appears the couple are reliving atrocities. But it begins to emerge that Devlin may be her husband, at least partner, whose jealously appears to be forcing a confession out of her. But then Pinter explodes the setting as Rebecca recalls babies been torn form mothers, and her own bundle of a child being taken from her, as she elicits memories of the Holocaust. But it appears she is relating a response to cultural constructions of the Holocaust, she talks about “Memory Elephantitus”, in which memory expands and pours like gravy. Is she retelling her experience of seeing Sophie’s Choice, of our collective consciousness of watching Schindler’s List? I particularly like the way director Lia Williams and the actors tore through the stilted, middle class accent and approach that can often stifle Pinter. Here they are passionate, working class, relishing the text and the lighting design perfectly matches the pulse of the play.
It’s a bleak evening, that cannot be denied. But see if for fantastic, controlled and sublime acting, with confident direction that uses Pinter’s words like bullets.
Until 20 October 2018