Finding Harold: A Pinter at the Pinter Season Review

Pinter at the Pinter Season

Six months ago, the thought of a season dedicated to Pinter, let’s face it, sounded like a drag, a potential slog through 20 one-act plays and sketches full of weird scenarios, aggressive encounters and endless pauses. But as lovers of drama “this will be good for me” you may have thought, Pinter is beloved of actors and directors, an important voice in the landscape who like Brecht and Beckett we have to learn to appreciate – the equivalent of our theatrical fibre, you know it’s good for you but you don’t have to like it.

What has actually occurred in the last six months is nothing less than astonishing as Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season has transformed hearts and minds, showing us the genius and humanity of a multi-stranded writer whose plays remain as relevant and meaningful as they were in the 1960s. By finally letting the audience in on the secrets of Pinter’s success and making a case for his work in the mainstream, this is how Jamie Lloyd et al has taught us not just to like and understand Pinter, but to love him.

  • The Context

Prior to this game-changing season, there has been plenty of Pinter to see in the last few years with high calibre productions filled with star names. Lloyd himself directed two at the Trafalgar Studios – The Hothouse and The Homecoming with a fantastic cast that included Pinter-veteran John Simm in both alongside Ron Cook, Gary Kemp, Simon Russell Beale and Gemma Chan. A major revival of No Man’s Land toured the UK with legendary theatre knights Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, while 2018 began with an impressive production of The Birthday Party also at the Harold Pinter Theatre directed by Ian Rickson and starring Toby Jones, Zoe Wannamaker and Stephen Mangan.

All of these productions were great, all weird, menacing, peculiar experiences that were entertainingly bizarre. They created a chink through which you could sit back and appreciate Pinter’s (then) niche appeal, his focus on unsettling tone and illusory perspectives rather than straightforward narrative and character development. Did we understand these plays? Maybe. Did we love them? Probably not. Using the same criteria for assessing last year’s disappointing Oscar Wilde season, let’s see how Jamie Lloyd changed our minds.

  • Play Selection is Crucial

Building an entire season around rarely seen short works and grouping them together in thematic collections was a stroke of genius. The advantage of this for an audience is the feeling of assortment, knowing that if one piece was less entertaining or meaningful then in 10-30 minutes the next play or sketch might be more appealing. The anthology approach offers plenty of variety in one night, making explicit connections between quite different types of work and  thereby reinforcing the central premise that our perspective on Pinter’s output has been unfairly narrowed by his most revived plays.

Pinter is, Lloyd has forcefully argued, an ever-relevant commentator whose writing incorporates the full spectrum of human experience, that it has a universality that beneath the strange structure and scenarios makes him a major and enduring figure in theatre history. And the timelessness of Pinter’s subject matter was infused through the seven thematic collections, beginning with a set of stories including Mountain Language, One for the Road and Ashes to Ashes that examined the totalitarian state, the shifting balance of power in society and the slow erosion of individual rights that leads to violence.

Playing in repertory, Lloyd changed pitch completely in Pinter Two with the oft-combined The Lover and The Collection that examined the politics of relationships, of fantasy role-play and unconventionality. Pinter Three and Four also applied contrasting themes, the latter using Moonlight and Night School to think about external intrusion into the domestic sphere and the complexities of family life, while placing these alongside exquisite productions looking at love and absence – Landscape and A Kind of Alaska – making us see Pinter’s ability to write deep emotion for the first time. Pinter Three was a powerful experience amplified by Lee Evans heartbreaking Monologue which remains one of the seasons most memorable events, one that felt utterly transformative in shifting our perspective on Pinter.

The fifth collection continued to focus on isolation and physical separation finding poignancy beneath the comic in Victoria Station and particularly Family Voices, an exchange of letters between mother and son. This was contrasted with the class-based falsity of pre-selected communities in Pinter Six’s Party Time and Celebration, before concluding with A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter showcasing the absurdity of language and the rhythm of Pinter’s dialogue. The breadth of Pinter’s work has been gratifying to see, evolving throughout the season and carefully curated to reveal a writer whose multifaceted output elicited deeper meaning the more of it we saw.

  • Vary the Presentation

It has been said many times during the series, but Jamie Lloyd has the most finely calibrated understanding of Pinter of any modern director and this gave his team the confidence to break free of the original period settings and to deliver each anthology with a slightly different, but undeniably modern, approach that underscored the generality of Pinter’s themes. Where Dominic Dromgoole’s Wilde season stuck to its rigid historical focus (much to its detriment), Lloyd and season designer Soutra Gilmour had a clear, stylised vision for each production, united by a series of common factors including the large rotating cube in various states of deconstruction, and the visible “backstage” detritus that lent artificiality at the right moments.

The effect created layers of meaning within the design that united individual collections under their thematic banner whilst also ensuring that they were visibly part of the overall vision for the season. Through careful management of visual clues, Jon Clark’s lighting design and George Dennis’s sound and music choices, every time the curtain went up the audience undoubtedly knew they were at a Pinter at the Pinter performance.

It all began with a clear statement of intent, the lurking fear and intensity of Pinter One became a core feature of the stark, grey and intimidating design, with plenty of shadows creating dark corners. This is not the way Pinter’s work had been visualised before, and it set the standard for no ordinary season to come. And so it proved to be, every production offered a different approach, from the heightened reality and colour saturation of 60s sex comedy The Lover right through to the creepy radio booth of a A Slight Ache, each design slightly separate from those that had come before while beautifully serving the themes and content of the work.

The most visually exciting and directorially daring, was Pinter Six in which Lloyd employed very little movement and instead organised his actors in a line during Party Time, each stepping forward to deliver their scenes. The purposefully static nature of these decisions showed a season full of confidence, revelling in an intensity amplified by Gilmour’s monochrome design. As a now dedicated Pinter audience, we were pushed to focus on the text more completely as the season unfolded, a decision that allowed us to get the most from radio play A Slight Ache and Betrayal which followed.

  • Venue and Casting

Holding a Harold Pinter season at the Harold Pinter Theatre is an obvious choice, but the auditorium itself, aside from a series of slim pillars on every level, offers reasonable views from all but the most extreme seats in the Royal Circle and Balcony. Wherever you sit, the audience can feel fairly close to the action and if you booked early enough, you could see the whole season for £15 per show with several marginally restricted view seats in the Dress Circle – a sensible pricing decision for what 8-months ago seemed like an enormous risk. While Betrayal prices are now notably higher, previous season attendees had access to pre-sale tickets for as little as £25, while a weekly Rush scheme was introduced for key workers and those in receipt of social security benefit to see the show for £15, all of which have resulted in what has felt like a relatively diverse audience across the entire run.

Casting, of course, has been one of Pinter at the Pinter’s most notable features and, like the Kenneth Branagh Season in 2016, there has been a clear strategy to align established theatre veterans, those who personally knew Pinter and, most importantly, the industry’s rising stars – reiterating the season’s role in ensuring Pinter’s future survival. Every casting announcement brought fresh excitement with well-known performers including David Suchet, Anthony Sher, Phil Davis, Tamsin Grieg, Celia Imrie and Tracy-Ann Oberman across the run. Rupert Graves was particularly excellent in Pinter Five as a bemused taxi driver before joining with Jane Horrocks for the memorable Family Voices. John Simm excelled as ever in Pinter Six while Janie Dee and Brid Brennan were hilarious as nosey aunts in Night School.

Among the creative team, Lloyd successfully shared the directing honours with Patrick Marber, Lia Williams, and particularly Ed Stamboullian, but it was just as delightful to see substantial roles given to younger actors. Hayley Squires, Papa Essiedu, Gemma Whelan and Kate O’Flynn are well established if arguably not quite household names yet, but each firmly grasped the opportunity that the season offered to deliver excellent performances. And equally we saw brilliant work from actors all but fresh from drama school including Abraham Popoola as waiter with literary pretensions in Celebration, Jessica Barden as the mysterious lodger in Night School, and most impressively from Luke Thallon (soon to be seen alongside Andrew Scott in Present Laughter at the Old Vic) who brought Pinter’s radio play Family Voices so vividly to life in another of those memorable moments that will linger long after the season concludes. Of course, the ever-savvy Lloyd saved his trump cards for the season finale.

  • A Grand Finale

If there has been one key feature of the Pinter at the Pinter season it has been never to do things by halves, so with that in mind, why have one season finale when you can have two! The combined excitement of seeing Martin Freeman and, Pinter collaborator, Danny Dyer on stage in The Dumb Waiter promised to be quite an experience when it was announced last summer when Pinter Seven was intended to conclude the series in February. It may have raised eyebrows at the time, but populist casting would drive new audiences into the theatre. In that time, Dyer has transformed himself into a national treasure, and, with a theatre CV that is predominantly West End or equivalent, it proved to be an insightful evening as the central pair delivered a performance that showcased the layers of comic potential in the text to a house packed full of newly won Pinter fans.

Then came Betrayal. Announced only last November when the season was well underway, Pinter’s beautiful 90-minute play about adultery and friendship became the new season finale. The casting of Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox ensured that Pinter at the Pinter would end with one of the year’s most anticipated productions. Fully consistent with the seven insightful anthologies that have come before and visually aligned with the stark simplicity of Pinter One, directed with the precision and choreographical control that Lloyd displayed in Pinter Six, and performed with the intensity and emotional force of Pinter Three, Betrayal is an extraordinary piece of theatre, moving, complex and hugely resonant, the cumulative effect of Pinter’s work over the last 6 months ensuring you’ll never forget this astonishing finale.

  • A Point of View

In just six months, Jamie Lloyd’s creative team and ever-changing company of actors has utterly transformed our perspective on Harold Pinter. Where once we went leaden-footed for a night of inexplicable menace, suddenly we were skipping to our seats eager to be wowed by each new perspective on his plays. The range and value of Pinter’s writing, his inestimable effect on the theatrical landscape and the importance of his commentary feels more relevant, timeless and incontrovertible than it ever has.

The Pinter at the Pinter season set out to change our minds, to make us see, understand and really feel the many kinds of writer Pinter was. Anyone planning a production now will (and should) be intimidated by the wonderful clarity this season has brought us, the creative vision so brilliantly and purposefully delivered by all involved and filled with memorable experiences. We are genuinely sad that it’s over. The season has deservedly received huge acclaim, and plenty of applause, but Jamie Lloyd this figurative ovation is just for you for because in this exceptional season of work, you truly taught us all to love Pinter.

The Pinter at the Pinter Season concludes with Betrayal, now running until 8 June, with tickets from £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 500 shows. 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

4 responses to “Finding Harold: A Pinter at the Pinter Season Review

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    It will come as no surprise to you that my take on the series is rather different. I still have a generally favourable opinion but, unlike you, I approach it from a relativist perspective rather than one of positive enthusiasm. In general, I think, it’s better that these pieces should be put on with talented casts of young (and not so young) actors than that they should be ignored or relegated to obscure amateur and student productions. It’s also fair to say that, while I found much of the staging gimmicky and uninspiring, nothing in the series came near the excesses of self indulgence typified by the likes of Robert Icke. Furthermore, while few of the Jamie Lloyd pieces were as fine as No Man’s Land at Wyndham’s, few were as disappointing as the Old Vic’s The Caretaker.

    The fact remains, though, of the pieces I’d seen before, almost all impressed me less than earlier productions. While it’s unfair to expect anyone to match the stellar casts and almost flawless interpretations of, say, Channel 4’s Celebration or Granada’s The Collection it’s bit more disappointing to remember that, for example, I’d seen a LIPA production of Party Time and Celebration that I found more stimulating than Lloyd’s. The main exception was The Dumb Waiter, which seemed to follow Pinter’s stage directions almost to the letter and was, in my opinion, all the better for it. Indeed, I wondered if HP’s old mucker and protégé Danny Dyer had taken Lloyd aside and, with true Pinterian menace, warned him not to take liberties!

    On balance, though, it’s hard not to take away some positive memories from the series. From Anthony Sher’s terrifying Nicholas in One for the Road in the opening set, through Tamsin’s Greig’s (almost) matching Penelope Wilton’s definitive Beth in Landscape and Rupert Graves/Colin Mcfarlane’s hilarious Victoria Station to the aforementioned The Dumb Waiter at the very end there were a great many performances to treasure even if, sometimes, I did find the staging rather annoying.

    I’m also rather more sceptical than you are about the project, in itself, bringing significant new audiences to Pinter. While the scale and the scope of the enterprise was indeed impressive it was notable that the full houses still corresponded with the productions featuring the big star names – Greig, Evans, Simm, Imrie etc culminating in the Dyer/Freeman complete sell-out and followed by the predictably ‘kill for a ticket’ Tom Hiddleston show. I suspect the rather more modest attendances at some of the other events reflected the fact that they appealed largely to the likes of you and I who already had some kind of interest in Pinter qua Pinter. Indeed, I was far more interested in seeing the rarely performed pieces than in an opportunity to see a play I’ve already seen at least four times just because it has TH in it (that said, I see Betrayal has been extended so my chances of seeing it without busting a gut must now be better). It’s worth remembering, too, that there’s nothing particularly unusual about big-name Pinter productions playing to full houses. I had to stand for the McKellen/Stewart No Man’s Land and tickets were not that easy even for the disappointing Mayes/Spall The Caretaker. Outside London I sat in packed auditoria for Jonathan Pryce in The Caretaker and Maggie Steed in The Birthday Party. I’d love to think the Lloyd initiative will lead to heightened interest but I can’t help but recognise that between the sellout Kristen Scott-Thomas Betrayal and the sellout Tom Hiddleston Betrayal I saw London Classic Theatre’s perfectly decent touring production of the same play in a quarter-full provincial theatre (and noticed that they didn’t seem to come close to filling any of the venues I checked when planning where to see it).

    I do hope you’re right and I’m wrong. Nothing would please me more than a rash of thoughtful, high-profile Pinter productions all over the country. Also, let’s see some of the pieces Lloyd didn’t give us – A Night Out or Tea Party, for example.* But I fear it’s equally likely that the message producers take from the season will be that if you want to do Pinter make sure you get someone big off the telly to boost the box office.

    *actually, I wonder if JL has plans for these and a few others. After the recent season there actually aren’t that many Pinter plays that haven’t been staged in the West End in the last ten years or so.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John

      Thanks for your comments and, yes, I was expecting you to take a slightly different position. While you clearly have a far greater knowledge of Pinter than most people and have seen many versions of his work that clearly impressed you more, I think you somewhat underestimate just how intimidating and difficult his plays can be for the non-expert and those with far less time to spend in the theatre than either of us.

      As I think I’ve made clear before, I was barely a Pinter fan when this season began but Lloyd’s approach has entirely won me (and many others) round bringing a freshness, relevance and genuine appreciation for Pinter’s work to each performance in a way I had never seen before, even to the plays I knew. We have discussed this already, but I fundamentally disagree with your insistence that ticket sales are a the prime indicator of production quality and success. With an anthology series of this nature naturally you split your audience and Pinter was a tough sell to begin with. Plus, without the early bird £15 offers few can afford to go to the theatre seven or eight times in 6 months however much they would like to.

      In terms of attracting new audiences, having been in many many theatres with the same middle class / middle aged demographic, it has been encouraging to see so much diversity in the audiences for Pinter at the Pinter, and while big name casting does have some effect on this, the quality of the work has created its own momentum, increasingly focusing on the text and rhythm of Pinter’s dialogue as the season has unfolded.

      Apart from your responses to my other reviews, I have experienced almost nothing but praise for this season, coming from the audiences around me enthusiastically discussing what they have seen, to social media reactions from excited viewers post-show, a varied pool of positive critical reviews (including an unwavering 4* from Mr Billington for every performance who you frequently cite as a Pinter expert) and conversations with non-specialists. Clearly Lloyd is not for you and none of that detracts from your love of the traditional text and preference for other kinds of production, but the season has been a revelation to me, filled with surprise and innovation which will make us view Pinter a little differently in the future.

      We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.

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