by Gregory Forrest
A whole day of Pinter. “Christ,” my landlord said, “I couldn’t think of anything worse.”
Jamie Lloyd is embarking on an epic project: to stage every single one of the influential
playwright Harold Pinter’s short plays over a six month period, at the theatre which bears his name. Pinter at the Pinter. Pretty neat huh?
In Pinter One, the season’s opening collection of fragments, sketches, poems, and
speeches, Lloyd has decided to tackle Pinter’s later, more political works. These are texts
about body counts and torture camps and, that darkest of all sins, spin doctoring. The
variety of material on show here seems novel at first, yet it soon becomes clear that these
pieces have been grouped together for their thematic similarity. They speak to each other, but all seem to be saying the same thing. The despots and warlords have won,
they’re merciless and misogynistic, and it’s present day.
Pinter One feels a bit like mega slick studio theatre: there’s the technical scale of the West
End, but the tonal bluntness of a weaker writer. It’s perfectly natural that the complete
works of any writer will not be immaculate – a lot of Shakespeare is like pulling teeth – and the inclusive gesture of this project means there’s bound to be some duds.
Kicking things off with a massive shower of confetti, Press Conference never lifts off the
ground. A smart Donald Trump gag cannot save the fact that newly-discovered sketch The Pres and an Officer – in which a despotic US President accidentally nukes London – never moves beyond its first punchline: the US President is an idiot. No kidding? By the time Antony Sher’s stunning performance in One for the Road comes about, its smarter and more sustained critique of despotic violence is a welcome relief. A strange description for such a disturbing play.
Yet Pinter One truly redeems itself in its second act, setting the kaleidoscope aside for a
single one act play. Ashes to Ashes is equally interested in violence and politics, but uses
this context to grapple with romance, memory, and mental illness too. Kate O’Flynn and
Paapa Essiedu are terrifyingly good as Rebecca and Devlin, two lovers stuck with each
other’s dark pasts. It feels more human, whatever that means. Lia Williams shows her
hand as an incredibly sharp director of Pinter’s work, peeling back the psychological
intricacies of the text. While one physical movement between O’Flynn and Essiedu will
stop your breath and break your heart at the same time.
If you’re looking for something lighter, Pinter Two takes a refreshing turn for the comic.
Earlier plays, The Lover (1962) and The Collection (1961) are both presented as timely
revivals on gender politics and the unstable nature of the ‘true’ story. And mercifully, both are very, very funny.
With its mock 50s aesthetic and performative gender politics, The Lover feels weirdly
reminiscent of Laura Wade’s recent hit Home, I’m Darling, which opened at the National
Theatre and Theatr Clwyd this year. It is a compliment to Pinter that a script he wrote over half a century ago has such direct contemporary echoes. In The Lover, stay at home
housewife Sarah (Hayley Squires) cheerfully narrates her day of cleaning, shopping, and
having sweaty sex with her lover, to grinning husband Richard (John Macmillan). Squires in particular is brilliant at teasing out the characteristics of this caricature, and when we finally ‘meet’ this lover, so to speak, the play starts to unravel at lightening speed. As things get increasingly ridiculous, the laughs gets increasingly serious, and Pinter drops the smallest of lines like bombs. This is the kind of gem Lloyd is looking for.
Straight after, David Suchet arrives in The Collection, a cape swishing, lip curling sponsor
of a former ‘slum slug’ fashion designer (Russell Tovey, eye candy and punchline smasher at the same time). Suchet steals the show: overacting, milking it, and playing every line like a deliciously camp epithet. Macmillan and Squires sort of reprise their roles as squabbling lovers, and again nail the plastic personas at play. Soutra Gilmour’s designs are gleefully finished with colour and saccharine touches, crystallising director Jamie Lloyd’s period specific take on both plays. This is Pinter having a blast with his words, and a creative team rising to the ridiculousness.
In these early plays, Pinter’s finger is always on the pulse of a dramatic scene, but he
never pins it down completely. He neither confirms nor denies, and this crackles in a
theatre. While I can’t help but feel Pinter One is worth it for Ashes to Ashes alone, and
certainly has more tabloid resonance, Pinter Two has a nightmarish cartoon quality to it
which slowly becomes far more compelling.
If Pinter One gives you violence of warfare and politics, Pinter Two understands that
damage can be done between the laughter, making this a bold opening to an ambitious
Pinter One and Pinter Two run through 20 October.
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