Tag Archives: Jamie Lloyd

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.

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Betrayal – Harold Pinter Theatre

Tom Hiddleston in Betrayal (by Marc Brenner)

Based on his own real-life affair, Betrayal is the most emotionally resonant and affecting of Pinter’s plays, and a clever choice to mark the end of what has been an astoundingly good season of work from The Jamie Lloyd Company. A key characteristic of Pinter at the Pinter has been to show the extraordinary range, style and depth of the writer’s shorter works, allowing audiences to truly understand the different layers of his writing – the comic Pinter, the political Pinter and, in some of the season’s most memorable moments, the emotive Pinter, able to move an entire room with a turn of phrase.

Betrayal is a profoundly affecting play, one that is not only fully alive on the page but it sings, every line, every word carefully and sparingly chosen bursts with the characters’ repressed feelings, unspoken affections and the acres of unfillable space that opens-up between them as the play unfolds in reverse. And that’s before you add three of our finest actors to the mix, who demonstrate the phenomenal control Pinter had over his dialogue and the effect he intended to create, as well as those famous pauses which far from empty silence are loaded with tension and tragedy in this stunning new production.

The fact that Betrayal is told backwards is more than a fancy dramatic trick, it adds a heavy weight of inevitability to proceedings, showing the audience how easily meaning can change over time and highlighting the various layers of character interactions. Nothing is quite what it seems on the surface, and like real life conversations, the triangular lovers rarely say what they mean, at least not in full. So many incidences referenced with a throw-away remark earlier in the play (but chronologically later) appear different, more loaded when Pinter takes you back to really look at them, while so much is left unsaid or merely inferred. As the sands constantly shift between Emma, Jerry and Robert, Pinter leaves you wondering that if love can so easily disappear, was it ever really there at all?

What is clear from Lloyd’s fascinating interpretation is that the doomed love affair at its heart is the play’s biggest red herring.  There are few directors who understand Pinter better than Lloyd and here the audience is shown several types of duality within the text; first there is a conversational artifice in many of the scenes that belie the different levels of truth that occur throughout the play. These exchanges between the characters can sound a little stilted, even awkward or slightly unreal which here the actors sometimes deliver in a slightly heightened tone. The purpose is two-fold, to show how intimacy sours as close acquaintances and lovers retreat back into reticence – emphasised in the opening scene in which Emma and Jerry meet several years after their affair ended – and secondly to consciously hide their perspective from each other, as Robert frequently does when alone with Jerry.

The second type of duality refers to truth, how honest the characters are about what they’re doing and, crucially, what they already know. For most of Betrayal’s 90-minute run-time, the audience knows more than any one of the characters on stage, and what the characters do know they frequently keep to themselves. It is in only the second scene, after his reunion with Emma that a frantic Jerry learns for the first time that Robert (his best friend) had known about their liaison for some time – and later Pinter takes us back to that rather crucial revelation.

This withholding of truth from Jerry is mirrored in similar instances throughout the play; Emma doesn’t tell Jerry that Robert knows, Jerry never tell Robert about the affair directly, and Robert never confronts Jerry once he does find out. “You don’t seem to understand that I don’t give a shit about any of this” Robert tells him the aftermath, a truth he presumably withheld from his wife as well. The central affair is then a red herring, a betrayal of course but by no means the only, or even the most significant, betrayal in the play.

What Lloyd does to such astonishing effect in this production is to choreograph every single movement with incredible precision. All three actors remain on-stage throughout but appear together in only a limited number of scenes. The “third” person becomes a shadowy presence between whoever is talking, a permanent, ominous other shading the interplay between the talking couple, all inextricably linked by their complex relationship.

Position and movement is key to marking the rhythm of Pinter’s work, and these changes occur to match the different beats in the dialogue with all three performers, whether in the scene or not, changing position at key moments. Using only the project titles that have been a feature of the Pinter at the Pinter season to mark transitions, scenes flow effortlessly into one another, and Lloyd uses this careful repositioning and the double revolve in the centre of a blank impassive box, designed with style by Soutra Gilmour, to change location, time and mood, allowing the interactions to take focus as they become knottier and more weighted with emotion.

In the early scenes, the actors are at odds and kept largely at a distance from each other; Emma and Jerry sit side-by-side for their pub reunion barely seeing the other, while Robert’s confession in the next scene happens with Jerry on the other side of the stage, reflecting the huge emotional hinterland that has opened up between them. Physical proximity comes later when the artifice of conversation and distance fall away to reveal emotional anguish beneath the surface, something which builds slowly but to great effect under Lloyd’s direction.

In many ways it is Robert who is really at the heart of this play and his friendship with Jerry is something both go to extreme lengths to preserve at great cost to themselves. Alone, Jerry and Emma speak often of Robert, and it is the thought of his despair and protection of his friend that sends Jerry immediately to face the music in Scene Two. Likewise, while on holiday in Venice, Jerry is the key subject for Emma and Robert too, when the latter seems more offended not to be referenced in a crucial letter than the revelation that threatens to unravel their lives. Throughout, Emma and Jerry are searching for ways to be close to Robert, his distance sends Emma into the arms of the man who knows him best, while Jerry seeks out Robert’s wife as a way of holding-on to their friendship when marriage and careers send them in opposite directions.

Purposefully, none of the characters are particularly likeable and despite its focus on infidelity it is play without a victim. To avoid the sympathetic cuckold label Robert admits to having hit his wife because he just wanted to give her ‘a good bashing. The old itch… you understand’. Pinter shows us the kind of man he is upfront, not to be pitied and, as we soon discover, just as unfaithful as his wife has been. Like his superbly brutish Coriolanus, and as a genuinely great stage actor, Tom Hiddleston shows us the complexities of Robert’s character, almost coldly withdraw at the start, approaching the end of his marriage with a blasé acceptance that suggests no deeper hurt beneath the bonhomie of his conversation.

Later we come to realise that Robert’s disassociation stems from years of withdrawal from Emma. A crucial scene in which he learns of her affair is superbly played and you see Hiddleston’s Robert achingly hesitant to introduce a conversation that will confirm his worst fears. The uncertainty subtly flickers across his face as he looks for an opening, eventually blundering in unable to restrain himself any longer. What follows is painfully sad as he accepts the news quietly and resignedly, full of those famous pauses loaded with heavy and heartfelt sorry which Hiddleston performs well as Roberts absorbs the shock and falls to into silent contemplation.

In the following section set in the same month, Robert has a strange lunch with Jerry in which he cannot tell his friend he knows the truth. Instead he engages in a brittle and artificial conversation about Venice and the happy moment he spent alone on Torcello. The audience knows this trip occurred after he found out, and while sections of the audience laugh through the overt chomping of melon and prosciutto, what is really going on in this scene is a man desperate for things to seem normal again, swallowing his fears and, sitting across from his greatest friend, trying to decide if he can live with the lie. It’s quietly devastating, and the pain that Hiddleston so subtly suggests is very moving, even deeply tragic, a high point of the show.

Zawe Ashton’s Emma is equally complicated, her adoration of Jerry cast into doubt by the circumstantial spitefulness of her choices. Not only does she throw herself fairly easily (as the final scene suggests) into an affair with her husband’s best friend who drunkenly pays her attention and then calls him the instant her marriage disintegrates, but she is thought to be in the midst of a fresh affair with a writer called Casey who Jerry obviously despises. From the start, Ashton takes Pinter’s cues to suggest a woman whose need to be desired and love of secrecy balances out the declarations of love she makes both to Jerry and eventually Robert.

But Ashton finds the sympathy and humanity in her too. There is a genuine sadness in the break-up scene at their flat in Kilburn as they both come to realise whatever they had has withered. Ashton is excellent throughout often implying that her feeling for Jerry was always so much stronger than his attachment to her, but is particular good in this scene as the atmosphere between them veers between the practicalities of what to do with the flat and its furniture to the wasted opportunity that their mutual lack of effort has engendered. Similarly, she knows exactly what Robert is driving at in Venice where the need to be honest when directly confronted results in loaded silences and long-held stares that Ashton heaps with complex meaning.

As Jerry, Charlie Cox has an equally nuanced and interesting approach to excavating the changing experience of his character. Jerry’s key concern throughout appears to be protecting his friendship with Robert, and while he is occasionally affectionate to Emma at the height of their affair, Cox shows how remote he becomes from her in many of their more intimate scenes. When she speaks he is often slumped in a chair, gives a cursory answer to her entreaties while, at times, is emotionally and physically dismissive or cruel as his work draws the pair apart.

Contrast this with the frantic fear and remorse that Cox demonstrates in Robert’s presence in that crucial second scene, the concern that his friend will despise him dominating all other responses. It is Emma who remembers the details of their affair, times, places and key occurrences, yet Jerry remembers Robert’s speech about reading Yeats on Torcello, taking a keener interest in his friend than his lover. This ambiguity is equally compelling and repellent in Cox’s performance who brings similar layers of meaning to his interactions with the couple he came between. Hiddleston, Ashton and Cox are a superb trio that individually carve out their own characters using Pinter’s precise and evocative dialogue while filling the spaces in between with a growing feeling of heartbreak that builds so well as the play unfolds.

As a finale to the Pinter at the Pinter season, this couldn’t be better, gripping, full of meaning and so very moving. You’ll need a walk home or have a quiet sit down afterwards to properly process it. Betrayal is the kind of play that stirs the feelings, unsettling and savage at times, but also sad and beautiful. With three exceptional performances full of complexity and feeling, innovative direction that enhances the themes of the play and an intensity that grips you entirely, Betrayal is everything you could hope for. The Pinter at the Pinter season has set a very high standard for itself, but what a swansong this has turned out to be.

Betrayal is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 1 June with tickets from £15. There is a £15 Betrayal Rush scheme every Monday at 12pm for anyone under 30 who is a keyworker or in receipt of Job-Seekers Allowance. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Pinter Seven: A Slight Ache / The Dumb Waiter – Harold Pinter Theatre

Pinter 7 - The Dumb Waiter

What a difference a few months can make; when the Jamie Lloyd Company first announced its Pinter at the Pinter season finale show back in May (before Betrayal was added to the programme), the news that Danny Dyer would star alongside Martin Freeman raised a few eyebrows. Famous for a series of over-earnest gangster films, daft documentaries and his role in Eastenders, his fans were delighted but there was also plenty of sneering about his lack of stage experience, and undoubtedly some ticketholders were hoping to witness a car-crash theatrical event. But since May, Dyer’s wider public profile has rapidly changed largely due to his “mad riddle” Brexit rant that reflected the frustrations of so many, as well as his recent history series for the BBC that defied its critics with knowingly comic scenarios that were full of humanity and respect for the expertise around him. In the last eight months the nation has rather taken Danny Dyer to our hearts

For fans, the transformation of Danny Dyer began when his Eastenders character Mick Carter proved to be a sensitive and loving family man, subverting old-fashioned expectations of soap-opera masculinity by supporting his fictional son’s decision to come-out, while sensitively responding to his wife Linda’s rape storyline. More recently, Dyer cemented his status as a national treasure in waiting by delivered Channel 4’s alternative Christmas message stressing the importance of mentorship, a sentiment echoed in his quite touching speech at the National Television Awards last month in which he dedicated his win to Harold Pinter for believing in him when no one else did.

Dyer, of course had known Pinter when as younger actor he appeared in No Man’s Land, Celebration and The Homecoming. A guiding friendship developed that has clearly had a lasting effect on the actor, one that makes his presence in the Pinter at the Pinter line-up both appropriate and meaningful – who better to celebrate the writer’s life and work than someone who feels he owes it all to Pinter. Throughout this superb season the Jamie Lloyd Theatre Company has made strong and strategic casting decisions that have purposefully mixed experienced actors, those who knew Pinter or have performed frequently in his plays, along with the industry’s rising stars.

It has given actors and comedians the chance to surprise us – who imagined that Lee Evans would deliver one of the most moving monologues of the season in Pinter Three, or that newcomer Luke Thallon would almost steal the show from established performers Jane Horrocks and Rupert Graves in Pinter Five. There are no passengers in a Jamie Lloyd show, however large the company or small the role, every part of the production must contribute to the overall effect the director is trying to create. Lloyd likes to be disruptive and in cannily casting Dyer, he foresaw a possibility that goes beyond the commercial – though a full house and growing anticipation for a notable finale are also in there – another chance to use his stylised vision to show us that Dyer is as worthy of this company as any of the great names who have come before.

But all of that is to come because Pinter Seven opens with Gemma Wheelan and John Heffernan in A Slight Ache, Pinter’s 1958 play that began its life on the radio. While some of the other pieces in the collection have a similar provenance, they have been staged as primarily theatrical experiences, creating movement while playing with tone and pace to give them a physical dramatic life. Here the growing confidence of the Lloyd season is evident, now six revered shows later, we see the radio play performed by two actors in a 1950s radio studio using, for the most part, just their voices and a microphone to create that intimate wireless feel, and adding their own sound effects as they reveal the curious story of a middle England couple and the mysterious Matchseller.

Set in the semi-rural home of Edward and Flora on Midsummer’s Eve, it opens with the trapping of a wasp in the marmalade as the couple eat breakfast in their garden, revealing their quite different approaches to dealing with the buzzing intruder. As the longest day stretches on their happy idyll is disturbed by the looming appearance of a Matchseller lurking on the perimeter of their property, a man who appears to have watched the house for some time. Wanting him to leave, and with his eyes beginning to ache Edward and Flora invite him in, keen to know more about this troubling stranger.

Like so much of Pinter’s work, A Slight Ache uses language to create a quite specific effect enhanced here by the use of close microphones to create the very intimate feeling of radio drama. Very little is acted out, so almost everything the couple say or do must be conjured in the audiences’ mind from the descriptions and implicit inferences created by the actors. There is a strong sense of place, of class and a particular kind of easy living sustained by wealth, entitlement and expectation that comes entirely from the words Pinter places in the mouths of the characters. Frequent reference to the Latin names of the plants in the garden as Edward and Flora enjoy their home, and words like “marmalade”, “preposterous” and “treacherous” evoke a particular kind of England.

This is reinforced later by discovering Flora was once a Justice of the Peace as an encounter with a poacher sticks in her mind, while Edward has a career as an essay writer, all of which suggest a peaceful and untroubled existence that the Matchseller is about to disrupt. As so often with Pinter, what is said on the surface can be at odds with what is happening underneath, and while both Flora and the Matchseller are the recipients of some fairly ugly words that deliberately mar the beauty of the summer’s day, it is the practicality and openness of the female character that emerges with strength of purpose over her weaker intellectualising husband.

Lloyd’s staging draws out the psychological strangeness of the play, a building sense of doom but also of an almost supernatural presence that will change them all. The paganistic connection to Midsummer’s Eve runs through this one act piece, referenced repeatedly as “the longest day” as though ripe for other worldly forces to take charge. At the same time, we never see or hear the Matchseller speak, any responses attributed to him and voiced by Edward and Flora who also describe his shambling and dirty appearance. Crucially, in Lloyd’s production we never hear him, so, unlike Flora and Edward’s actions, he is not accompanied by any sound effects, questioning whether his existence is quite as firm as Edward’s failing eyes suggest.

There is a notable Inside No 9 quality to this 50-minute duologue, and, with similarities in content and tone, A Slight Ache may well have influenced Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s Tom and Gerry episode from Series 1. It is also beautifully played by Wheelan and Heffernan, creating a richness with their voices so redolent of the undisturbed clarity of radio, while modulating the sound to alter the mood of the piece as the characters are drawn from their well-spoken, almost clipped 1950s accents, into misty reminiscences and increasingly fearful behaviours by the repulsively alluring stranger they have invited in. You may be here for the big stars to come, but this fantastic one-act play is the one you’ll be thinking about on the way home.

The Dumb Waiter is, in part, a more farcical affair but, written in 1957, is equally concerned with the use of language to create a sense of class and purpose. Two hit men wait in the basement of a building in Birmingham for instructions on their latest job, Ben the senior partner just wants to peaceably read his newspaper while the more highly-strung Gus poses an endless torrent of questions. Already a little fractious with each other, the unexpected arrival of food orders in the dumb waiter throws the men into chaos as they try to figure out what is going on before their target arrives.

There is a Godot-like quality to this semi-absurdist play, and while the farcical elements are perhaps less well-formed than some of Pinter’s later work, Lloyd’s production nicely frames the anticipation of the characters, forced to endure a long wait before they can perform their task, as well as the shifting power dynamic between the two men essentially trapped in a confined space. In some ways they seem both capable and entirely incapable of performing the assassins’ role they have chosen, and what emerges is a tug of war between Gus’s intellectual and Ben’s physical approaches.

Pinter often likes to introduce a disruptive element into an established group, but in The Dumb Waiter it is Ben and Gus who are the interlopers. We know from their accents, turn of phrase and the existence of particular items in their possession that they are both working-class men from London. They use words like “liberty” to mean an affront and Ben reads sensationalist stories from the newspaper, while Gus reveals a small picnic in his bag that includes tea, milk, biscuits, crisps and an Eccles cake which, with little biographical detail, still speaks volumes about who they are.

Martin Freeman’s Gus is initially the nervier of the two, he fusses about the broken toilet flush and the state of the beds they’ve been given to sleep in, at times barely pausing for breath. He hounds Ben for details of the job and, despite his supposed experience, seems disconcerted by a previous victim being female. During the course of the play, Freeman slowly suggests a different angle to Gus, with a physical bravery that surpasses Ben’s. He is first to open the serving hatch to the Dumb Waiter and to check the exterior world for contact, becoming increasingly comfortable within himself as the absurdity plays out.

By contrast Dyer’s Ben begins to come unstuck, the control and self-confidence with which he starts the play, silently and calmly reading the paper, is slowly chipped away until his own discombobulation takes on physical characteristics as Dyer sways slightly, shifting his weight or anxiously rubs his knees as Ben tries to figure out how to respond to whatever elaborate game is being played with them. With Dyer’s previous experience playing hard men, he’s on pretty firm ground here but he captures well the loosening of Ben’s certainty without entirely relinquishing the physicality of the potential threat he poses.

It’s a successful treatment from Lloyd in a play that grapples with largely realist performances in an absurdist construct. Part of that is down to the relationship that Freeman and Dyer create throughout the play, both giving the other the space for their individual performances, while allowing the sands to shift as events redefine power structures. With press night looming, these rapid changes between comedy, menace and fear that run through Pinter’s one-act show will become even more fluid and loaded with meaning which should please the house-full of fans for both performers.

Pinter Seven was meant to be the end of the Pinter at the Pinter season, and after six months of performances, these anthology collections have ended as confidently and memorably as they began, particularly with the very fine A Slight Ache to start the evening. The wealth and variety of Pinter’s work has seemed genuinely astounding, while Lloyd’s company of creatives and performers have brought distinction and meaning to every single one, eliciting very high hopes for a creative take on Betrayal in March. As Danny Dyer continues his transformation, whatever the reason for snapping-up tickets eight months ago you can be assured of a good night out. After all, a proudly working-class actor at the centre of a major West End season, well, Harold Pinter would approve.

Pinter 7: A Slight Ache / The Dumb Waiter is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 26 February. Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

 


Pinter Six: Party Time/Celebration – Harold Pinter Theatre

Pinter at the Pinter Six

As the annual party season draws to a close we are all exhausted from a least a month of Christmas drinks, official office parties and socialising with everyone we’ve ever met before the symbolic chasm beyond the 25 December. One last hurrah on New Year’s Eve to see out a year no one particular wants to remember will be replaced with diets, detoxes and a month at home to recover from the financial strain of the festive period. What better time then to consider all the things we really hate about forced social gatherings – the one-upmanship, the sniping couples and the self-congratulation all concealed under a thin veneer of social expectation and small-talk.

The penultimate Pinter at the Pinter collection is another superbly insightful double bill uniting Party Time from 1991 with Celebration from 2000. This is Pinter as a social commentator subtly examining the slightly falsified nature of the party set-up, suggesting much about the complex nature of human interaction and revealing character traits through conversations full of class, gender and political meanings. Presented to a now socially-jaded late December / early January audience these are two parties you’ll be glad to observe from the safety of your theatre seat.

Back at the helm after temporarily handing-over the directorial reins, you know instinctively that this is a Jamie Lloyd production as soon as the curtain rises. Gone are the gentler themes about love and loss, and instead we return to contrasting shades of darkness and light. Where Soutra Gilmour’s revolving cube has been used to give previous collections movement and verve, here both plays have a deliberate static quality, similarly presented front-on with the actors placed in a row facing the audience. How Lloyd uses this to create two dynamic gatherings that emphasise Pinter’s focus on the dangerous nonsense of social climbing is fascinating.

Opening with Party Time Lloyd and Gilmour create a vision more akin to a funeral than a twinkly upper middle-class get-together, but for good reason. Pinter’s story is all about the ways in which the accumulation of wealth depends on the exploitation of those in the lower social order and how vulgar the conversations about holidays and tennis clubs, a heartless display of status really are, suggesting an emptiness at the heart of these interactions. Here, while peacocking, the characters reveal a ruthless approach to protecting their own privilege and a refusal to see beyond the limits of their comfortable existence, a purposeful blindness about how their lifestyle is sustained.

The attention to detail here is very meaningful, and Gilmour’s party venue is a black room, with black chairs, with a set of double black doors at the rear centre through which the external world occasionally tries to break through. She dresses each character in a carefully chosen black outfit and shoes while even providing quite specific brunette wigs to a number of the actors to create a soulless and bleak community governed by a particular set of rules about conformity, which links nicely to the political themes and faceless governing elite of Pinter One.

Lloyd carefully places his actors in particular spots on the stage, the women seated on the outer edge to reinforce the male-dominated secret society idea that comes through strongly from the script, an ominous bunch ‘taking care’ of events beyond this room – a hint of revolution in which police cordons and traffic checks delay arrivals at the party –  and rapidly shutting down any reference to the events beyond. For the men of this elite set knowledge is power and the emphasis is squarely on ‘need to know’, so information is presented to the other characters and the viewer only where it serves the progress of the story, frequently without further context, for example when Dusty is abruptly told she cannot mention her missing brother.

To reiterate this idea of party and society as a form of constructed artifice, full of tacit rules and expectations, Lloyd shies away from a more traditional staging with conversations happening around the stage and instead seats all the actors in a single line, with the relevant combinations stepping forward to deliver their scenes before resuming their place in the frozen line-up. The effect of this is quite extraordinary, showing the multiple strands of conversation occurring in this room between semi-strangers, while cutting sharply between pockets of information to draw out their strange lack of reality. We’ve seen this in several of the earlier Pinter collections, the idea that this world exists slightly out of time with everything beyond the black doors, and, for some time, each interaction here also appears to be separated from the others, sets of lives happening in parallel in the same room but in their own vacuum.

The deconstructed staginess that Lloyd brings is cleverly utilised to underscore Pinter’s views on this type of party and its people supported by another fantastic ensemble cast. John Simm has such an natural feel for Pinter’s rhythm and after enjoyably dark performances in The Hothouse and The Homecoming, both for Lloyd at the Trafalgar Studios, here his angry banker Terry is full of rage in which Simm draws out the brutality of the man who verbally berates his wife and hints at a joy in physical violence beyond this room while talking about his favourite health club.

Simm is supported by Eleanor Matsuura as Dusty, Terry’s wife who married-up and struggles to cast-off the thoughts of her own family and class while chafing under Terry’s rule, Phil Davis as party host Gavin inducted into this particular social circle through his appreciation of the health club, Celia Imrie as Dame Melissa whose scathing comments on the nearby town are so revelatory for the audience, Ron Cook and Katherine Kingsley as couple Douglas and Liz whose only connection seems to be their children, and the wonderful Tracy-Ann Oberman as widow Charlotte reunited with Gary Kemp’s Fred – all of them reasonably oblivious to anything but their own immediate circumstances.

Pinter uses the 35-minute Party Time to comment on the unsatisfactory nature of marriage and the rapid descent into indifference or outright disdain. These themes are even more prevalent in Celebration, essentially a sex-comedy set in a restaurant during a wedding anniversary dinner as two sets of tables (a foursome and a double) explore past lovers, jealousy and the failure of their current relationships. As with Party Time the tone suggests something amiss, but Pinter, in his final play, draws out the crass nature of his characters more overtly as the self-congratulation gives way to more dubious moral undercurrents.

Lloyd stages this 40-minute play almost as the inverse of the earlier production with a visual palette that confines black to the back of the stage and instead uses gold, white and silver to create a gaudy nouveau riche world of shiny fabrics and visible wealth – and note Gilmour replaces the brunette wigs with blonde for most of the women and their natural silver of the men. Seated at a banquet-style table facing the audience, couples Lambert and Julie are celebrating their anniversary separated by fellow twosome Matt and Prue who have joined them for the evening. At either end of the table at right angles to the audience, Russell and Suki form an entirely separate conversation, and Lloyd controls the traffic between the initially separate scenarios with lighting changes, freeze frame techniques and a subtle musical flurry.

This set-up allows Lloyd to place a physical distance between the sparring couples (with the exception of the relatively happy Matt and Prue who sit side-by-side) that emphasises the considerable emotional separation they are experiencing. At several points Ron Cook’s dislikeable Lambert either pretends not to know his wife or acts with notable disrespect towards her including mention of earlier sexual conquests. There is an evident vulgarity in the way Cook’s Lambert carries himself, flaunts his wealth and holds court at what should be a celebratory dinner, clearly indicating a self-made man who constantly betrays his more-lowly origins.

These notions filter through the group and while both Oberman’s Julie and Imrie’s Prue are expensively dressed, Gilmour’s choice of shiny ruched fabrics and piles of elaborately coiffured hair equally suggest money without taste, they drip with expense but their obvious flashiness implying, deep-down, a discomfort or surprise at their sudden fortune that they have been unable to cultivate. While the characters in Party Time oozed a classical elegance and comfortable entitlement that stifles any real feeling, here this brash group open-up their thoughts and feelings as easily as their wallets.

The theme of sexual jealousy comes from the other table as Kingsley’s Suki dines with partner Russell played by Simm. Here we discover a path for young women from secretary to boss’s wife behind the filing cabinets of the offices in which Suki once worked. As the two stories collide, Pinter comments on marriage, attraction and our inability to fully escape our own past – especially, for women, the stain of former lovers – as the characters endure an uncomfortably forced period of social interaction into which Lloyd allows only minimal movement, reflecting the confinement of the life they have built for themselves. All of this is interspersed with more wordly musings from the waiting staff (Abraham Popoola and Matsuura) and Kemp’s restaurant manager who subvert social expectations to some degree; the people with money have neither education nor class, while the people without have both.

Together, the one Act plays that comprise Pinter Six are a condemnation of the falsity of politeness and the extent to which excessive amounts of money allow groups to mask terrible and immoral behaviours. These brilliantly staged pieces are the shortest of the set to date and contain the least motion from the actors, yet the purpose of Lloyd’s still and contained approach is extremely well and atmospherically realised by a top-notch cast who bring such clarity to Pinter’s social commentary. The Pinter at the Pinter season is now alas on the home straight and as we embrace the clean-living principles that come with each New Year, keep a little in reserve because you’ll be want to accept an invitation to this wonderful Pinter party.

Pinter Six is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 26 January with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Pinter Five: The Room/Victoria Station/Family Voices – Harold Pinter Theatre

Pinter 5 - Jamie Lloyd Theatre Company

At this time of year many people’s thoughts will turn to home and ideas of family (however constructed) that dominate the festive period. Our complex relationship with these concepts has always been a good basis for drama so now seems an appropriate time for the Pinter at the Pinter season to present the plays that have most to say about contained concepts of home and the difficulties of communication between people separated by physical or metaphorical distances, a barrier to intimacy that places a strain on their interaction.The combination of Pinter’s first play The Room, the 10-minute duologue Victoria Station and Family Voices based on an exchange of letters together become a study of the shifting attachment to home, place and identity.

2018 has been a significant year for Pinter, not least because today marks a decade exactly since the playwright’s death. And while Harold Pinter’s work is a fairly consistent part of the theatre landscape, much loved by creatives, it feels as though audiences have also had a major breakthrough this year thanks to a series of clarifying productions that have transformed the work into a number of mainstream hits. Back in January, The Birthday Party at this very theatre was a huge success, combining an all-star cast including Toby Jones, Zoe Wannamaker and Stephen Mangan with a tense and meaningful interpretation of this influential play that intrigued audiences and critics alike.

Since September, the four preceding Pinter collections in Jamie Lloyd’s fabulous season have been hugely successful, not only in bringing less frequently performed work to the stage in carefully curated programmes, but in revealing the huge variety in Pinter’s work that have made him such an influential practitioner. Where once we might think only of long pauses and a sense of menace, our view has been vastly expanded; from Pinter One we saw his role as a political commentator; from Two the nature of role-playing in romantic relationships; Pinter Three showed us his ability to capture loneliness and quiet despair which became so moving, while Four looked at domestic conflict and isolation. As a collective theatre audience, we approach the end of the year with a new-found appreciation of Pinter’s variety and learned to feel it on an emotional as well as an intellectual level.

This discussion about communication is particularly pertinent to Pinter Five which opens with the 45-minute one-act piece The Room. A precursor to The Birthday Party, the story is set in a single rented room of an odd urban boarding house. As it opens Rose is talking in undisturbed monologue to a husband who barely registers her incessant chatter, unable to get a word in edge ways as his wife poses and usually answers her own questions while serving his dinner. Played by Jane Horrocks, the character instantly suggests someone safely in her own world, comfortable and self-sustaining. She requires her husband’s attention but never his voice to support or confirm her own view of the world, a trait that filters through a series of bizarre events.

Throughout The Room characters seem to exist in slightly different versions of the same world, as though none of them are physically present in the same space despite their interaction, or at least they see and respond to that room entirely differently – a feeling of dislocation which director Patrick Marber heightens very effectively. Rose Hudd certainly seems trapped there and unlike the surrounding characters is unable to step outside, yet that is a hint that the others – the frustrated landlord and the strange couple who believe the flat is vacant – do not belong to the outside world either, as if they manifest in the moment and retreat again into the shadows of the house.

Miscommunication then dominates the action, and while husband Bert (an expressive Rupert Graves) lays on the bed for some time with his arms clasped around his head, Mr and Mrs Sands barely listen to Rose, continuing with their own narrative which creates a strange feeling of displacement as they appear to lay claim to the Hudd home. This concern with place becomes important not just for Rose who maintains a neat and comfortable existence with her husband, but also for Mr Kidd the landlord (Nicholas Woodeson) whose own abode seems ambiguous, the flat-hunting Sands and even for Bert who escapes to drive his truck for reasons that remain obscure. Is home therefore a physical space of belonging or some ethereal concept based on a feeling of comfort and welcome?

After the interval, the entertaining Victoria Station explores this notion in more detail with a conversation between a taxi driver and his control room operator asking him to collect a passenger at the station for a long journey. Throughout, the two men are at odds with one another, failing to understand each other’s meaning and unable to communicate their message with considerable comic effect. The wordplay here is reminiscent of the grave-digging scene in Hamlet, using language to signal purposeful and accidental miscommunication that creates frustration on both sides, while only slowly revealing the context that determines and affects their respective points of view.

As with The Room, you feel that both men exist in a vacuum, that the real world doesn’t truly surround them hence the driver’s silent passenger and the operator’s failure to contact other cabs. Colin Mcfarlane as the controller becomes increasingly exasperated with the muddled exchange of information and the seeming belligerence of his driver, while Rupert Graves is delightfully absent as the oddly reticent and literal cabbie unable to recognise London’s famous landmarks. Their reliance on each other suggests an enduring loneliness that this unexpected moment of contact makes clear to them both, while the confinement of the taxi and operating booth offer a soothing comfort, a protected space, a home of sorts in which both men can silently exist.

Pinter 3 showed us how moving these short plays can be and Family Voices picks-up on this theme with a particularly impressive central performance from relative newcomer Luke Thallon. One of the joys of this Pinter at the Pinter season has been to see established actors and comic performers working alongside theatre’s rising stars, offering everyone an equal chance to shine. Thallon has grabbed that opportunity to showcase a range of skills both as the eager Mr Sands in The Room and as Voice One or the Son in this cleverly staged radio play.

Using a range of accents and voices, Thallon along with Horrocks as Voice Two (Mother) and Graves as Voice Three (Father) relay a series of not quite connected monologues as letters pass between a geographically and emotionally distanced family. Pinter plays with form here using the three separate character narratives to create a texture that informs the audience’s perspective on this family’s wider history and experience. Within the Son’s letters he recounts a number of comic incidents involving the fellow residents of his lodging house, a cast of near-grotesques who Thallon conjures with distinct voice and physicality as he inhabits a seductive older woman with a plain daughter and an imposing neighbour intruding on his bath time.

The tone is chatty, conversational, a series of happy stories told to his mother with a pleasure belying the difficulties that seem to exist between them. Working with Thallon, director Marber keeps the action moving around a central bedstead, signalling changing locations but remaining still enough to engage the audience in each scenario aided by Thallon’s excellent performance – a highlight of the season so far.

Horrocks’s Mother character must create a counter tone that appears to disregard Thallon’s narrative entirely, as though neither receives the other’s missives. Instead, in what becomes an emotional piece, the Mother increasingly pleads for her son to answer her letters, implying an unbroachable difference between them that becomes increasingly painful to her which Horrocks conveys with beauty and fragility. Like Lee Evans’s wonderful Monologue in Pinter 3, Horrocks elicits considerable pathos from this character, untethered as she seems to be from home and family, yearning into the void.

In the final section of this wonderful play, Rupert Graves plays the deceased Father writing to his son from beyond the grave, creating a third more wistful tone that is full of a rather formal love for his son and hope for the future. As the three pieces cut across one another, these entirely different-sounding conversations create a growing sense of despair as they explore concepts of home – the Son clearly feels most comfortable in the freedom of his new life, whereas for Mother and Father a connection to their child (although crucially never to each other) grounds their own sense of belonging. The timelines perhaps are not aligned and we cannot even be sure that these three separate monologues are from members of the same family but you want to think that they are.

It seems appropriate in this Christmas week to think more about home, family and how ineffectively we really communicate with those we love the most. The collective works that make-up Pinter 5 feel as insightful and meaningful as any of the Pinter at the Pinter anthologies that have come before, and while perhaps The Room is the least electrifying, the combination of Soutra Gilmour’s imaginative staging, Patrick Marber’s considered direction and excellent performances from an ensemble cast of established stars and exciting newcomers, means this Jamie Lloyd season really is the theatre gift that keeps on giving.

Pinter Five is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 26 January with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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