Pinter One: One for the Road / New World Order etc – Harold Pinter Theatre

Pinter One -  Pinter at the Pinter

As one season ends another opens and, as the Oscar Wilde season slowly fizzles out at the Vaudeville, attention turns to the short plays of Harold Pinter all of which will be staged by the Jamie Lloyd Theatre Company to commemorate a decade since the influential playwright’s death. In the next 6-months every single one act Pinter play will be presented together for the first time across seven specially curated ‘collections,’ and hosted at the theatre posthumously named after him. With 20 plays to look forward to and a host of star names already attached to the project as both actors and directors, the seasons builds to a much-anticipated stage appearance by Danny Dyer and Martin Freeman in February.

First though, Pinter One will run for just 23 performances, tackling four plays and a sketch in two hours and 15 minutes – The New World Order, Mountain Language, The Pres and the Officer, One for the Road and Ashes to Ashes. With any season, it’s vital that the first production sets-out the Company’s intentions, taking a perspective on the work that will guide the audience through the run and, ideally, generate repeat-business for the subsequent shows. By emphasising the common themes in Pinter One and the topicality of their subject matter, this a very strong start for the Pinter at the Pinter season.

As a director Lloyd has a particular skill in drawing out the dark absurdity of the plays he selects, finding the point where the comic surface meets the sinister underbelly, and from this Lloyd often finds an uneasy or threatening tone where characters seem unable to escape the confines of their limited existence. While his work tends to polarise audiences, Lloyd has a special affinity with Pinter helping to make the work more accessible than it can sometimes be, resulting in a particularly fine version of The Homecoming a couple of years ago.

It’s ok to admit that Pinter is hard and often very weird, which to audiences used to straightforward narrative plays with a discernible beginning, middle and end, means watching Pinter can be a disconcerting and difficult experience. And he’s not a writer that you can just walk into a theatre and make sense of straight away, it takes practice, you need to time to get used to his style, to disconnect from the safer dramatic conventions we are familiar with and, like the theatre of the absurd (which is closely related to Pinter’s style) to refocus on the play’s themes and tone rather than character and plot. Pinter is all about tone.

Lloyd directs the entire first half of Pinter One which contains three of the plays along with some other monologues and sketches, but don’t expect to know exactly where one piece ends and another begins. Set in a dystopian world, these works focus on Pinter’s political commentary in which a series of scenes shows the audience different aspects of an oppressive regime where free speech, individuality and dissent are violently crushed. Set in a series of metallic grey rooms housed in a revolving cube that carves the stage into a variety of angular shapes, Lloyd and regular design collaborator Soutra Gilmour have created a singular setting that unifies The New World Order, Mountain Language, The Pres and the Officer and One for the Road in one terrifyingly bleak series of prison cells and interrogation rooms.

The emphasis across the plays is on power and powerlessness, where one group of people dominate and control the existence of another, often toying with them and enjoying the easy recourse to violence that is a frequent feature of Pinter’s work. The show opens with a burst of ticker tape released onto the heads of the stalls audience to celebrate the birth of a new regime. At the lectern, a consummate politician (Jonjo O’Neill) delivers smooth answers to the disembodied voices at a press conference. It all feels remarkably familiar until this Minister of Culture reveals he used to work for the Secret Police and his smiling answers belie the fiercely repressive policies he’s promoting, putting you instantly in mind of Hamlet’s line ‘That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.’

This proximity to everyday experience feeds through the show so, like all good science fiction, Pinter slimly disguises fears about heavy government regulation, attacks on outsiders and the ease with which the thin veil of society can disintegrate. With New World Order we see a naked man blindfolded and tied to a chair about to undergo some kind of torture, but first his respectable looking, even effete, attackers (O’Neill and Papa Essideu) goad him with what they’re about to do to him. It’s a wonderfully sinister piece about the anticipation of violence that becomes almost as frightening as the act itself which we never see. Both actors exude the kind of quiet menace that is so particular in Pinter, rarely needing to raise their voices, the surface and the reality being not what they seem.

Mountain Language begins seamlessly as two women (Kate O’Flynn and Maggie Steed) are questioned by camp guards, told their regional language is no longer permitted. Both are looking for their abducted husbands and eventually discover the brutal truth of what happened to them. Here identity and communication are the focus, where a regime can destroy a distinct group by erasing or forbidding its language – not so different from the themes of Brian Friel’s Translations and pertinent to our multicultural society. This rapidly turns into the recently rediscovered sketch The Pres and the Officer in which a foolish American President orders the destruction of the wrong place. It’s the only duff moment of the night, less for Pinter’s writing and more for the all too obvious Trump allusion, performed by Jon Culshaw. The rest of evening creates such a subtly hostile tone that the buffoonery of this section feels misjudged.

Just before the interval the final piece of Lloyd’s sinister world is revealed and, as with the preceding works it looks very different below the surface. As the lights go up, the gently-spoken Nicolas (Anthony Sher) is questioning a frightened companion (Essideu) in what looks like a therapy session, but very quickly becomes much odder as Nicolas demands to know if Victor likes him. The former does most of the talking, posing questions and emphasising the power he has to do whatever he likes while believing that God speaks through him. As Nicolas goes on to separately interrogate Victor’s wife Gila (O’Flynn) and son Nicky a ritual of violence and sexual assault beyond the walls of the room emerge, which Nicolas enjoys in the abstract.

Sher is wonderful as the intimidating but strangely needy interlocutor who seems to revel in the repeated acts of terror the family have endured, as though organising the pain from afar. Sher draws out the ambiguity in Nicolas’s need for this human interaction but is callous in his dismissal of their suffering, a powerful statement again about the smiling villains that seem to unite these shows. Essideu is the image of wide-eyed terror as he crumples under Sher’s menacing glare, while O’Flynn is a powerful presence as the repeatedly violated Gila.

At the interval the actors take an unusual bow and most won’t return for the final play Ashes to Ashes directed by Lia Williams. Visually and stylistically this initially seems very different to the work earlier in the evening, set in a more modern flat as two lovers return from a night out and fall into conversation about the past. But Williams easily demonstrates how well Pinter’s play fits with the earlier shows, as conversation gives way to interrogation and intimidation with fragments of intruding memory that the audience must slowly piece together, linking a traumatic event with the totalitarian state presented by Lloyd.

Essideu as Devlin takes on the role of the increasingly sinister man whose motives are distinctly hazy, whether he’s acting out of jealousy or fear of discovery is left entirely open, but an early throwaway line about hypnotism feels crucial as the play concludes. O’Flynn is the troubled Rebecca torn between declaring her love for Devlin and the two memories that continually interrupt her thoughts.

What we see across the works in Pinter One is an examination of power and how rapidly it can be corrupted. The selection of plays reiterates modern fears that division, isolation and prejudice quickly descend into the brutality of Orwellian military states, where an innate love of violence is too easily awoken. This is a very political anthology of work that collectively asks big questions about the stability of current society, the intelligence and charm of our politicians and our openness to difference and diversity. Pinter’s work here is a warning against complacency, to accept that we’re always on a knife-edge where good people can want to do hideous things with the smallest inducement.

Theatrically, Lloyd’s opener, co-directed by Williams, sets-out a clear thematic vision for the season ahead, with common plays presented together to offer insight into Pinter’s political and dramatic purpose. It’s also a trademark Lloyd production, innovatively staged and quirky, and although the pop culture references are more restrained than usual, snatches of Jerusalem and Zadok the Priest suggest the exploration of British identity may play a significant role across the season. Pinter is difficult, but a one-act season is a good way to get a taste for his style, and in Lloyd’s hands it’s a compelling start.

Pinter One runs in repertory until 20 October and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.      

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 800 shows in that time. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

7 responses to “Pinter One: One for the Road / New World Order etc – Harold Pinter Theatre

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    How was the attendance when you went? I was rather disturbed by the fact that the second preview was very poorly attended – especially as I would expect Essiedu, O’Flynn, O’Neill, Sher and Steed to be big attractions. Perhaps my view of what constitutes attractive casting is too ‘theatrical’ but I think it would be a shame if the crowds only turn out for the Danny Dyers and Martin Freemans of the entertainment world. An alternative explanation is that it’s a long, wide-ranging season and most people won’t be able to see all the productions. It wouldn’t surprise me if this rather scrappy collection of relatively obscure pieces is one that many chose to skip. This would be especially so if, like me, they prefer Pinter the master of dark enigma to Pinter the angry activist. It will be interesting to see if Pinter Two, with two of the better known one-acters – both character rather than issue-driven – sells better. To this extent I disagree with you about Pinter One being a strong opener.

    I strongly agree with you on two points. Firstly on the performance of Antony Sher. I thought this was worth the journey and ticket price in itself and I was particularly gratified because, after loving his Willy Loman, I found his King Lear rather disappointing. The only ‘disappointment’ in One for the Road was that my concentration kept slipping as I imagined how much better the HPT’s The Birthday Party might have been with Sher as Goldberg and O’Flynn as Lulu! Secondly I agree that the new discovery was very badly handled (even though I’m an admirer of Jon Culshaw’s mimic skills). I wonder when the penny will drop that the constant mocking of Trump is beginning to look less like the pricking of pomposity and more like mocking the afflicted. Even though criticism is deserved, Trump is such an easy target that there’s little merit in hitting it. Obviously Pinter didn’t name Trump (I wondered whether he had Reagan’s misfiring joke about bombing Russia in mind) and I think an unidentifiable President would have been much better.

    On a wider point I didn’t think any of the very short sketches showed Pinter in a good light. The more substantial plays were better but even here I found the explicit violence and cruelty of New World Order and Mountain Language less convincing than the subtler approach of the pieces either side of the interval. And you’ll probably have guessed that I preferred Lia Williams’s handling. That said, I didn’t find Jamie Lloyd’s interpretations as irritating as his The Hot House or The Homecoming. That might be because the only thing in Pinter One I’d seen live before was One for the Road but I’m quietly optimistic that he won’t mess about too much with The Lover and The Collection.

    On this short trip I also saw an early performance of About Leo at Jermyn St and have left the usual report. It was good enough but, despite what seem to have been the author’s intentions, didn’t really manage to avoid being more ‘About Leo and Max’. I trust you’ve spotted Billy Bishop goes to War in the JST’s new season. It looks right up your street – or should that be several hundred feet above your street?!.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John

      Thanks for your thoughts on this. Once I’d finished writing, I did pop over to the messageboard to see your review and it’s interesting to see the points we have in common, although I was sure we’d also feel differently about some of the approaches.

      The stalls were fairly full the night I attended but I couldn’t tell if people had been moved down. I think Pinter is a hard sell particularly, as you say, with the more obscure work. And I guess with short runs for 7 collections, audiences have to balance their availability.

      I do like Lloyd as a director more than you and appreciate how inventively he finds the way into a text. It’s often a love it or loathe it approach, but I think he has a particular ear and vision for Pinter that is always illuminating, even if you don’t agree stylistically. His version of The Homecoming was the first time I really felt Pinter got through to me properly and it was a production I very much admired.

      I think this bodes well for the season as a whole and, with changing directors as well as actors, will make for an interesting discussion as approaches vary. I’m certainly looking forward to the next two pieces.

      Thanks for the tip on JST, if any of those shows come up for review, I’ll certainly hope to see them.

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