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.