Back at the Harold Pinter Theatre for another session of Pinteresque shorts, and an outstanding programme, beautifully sequenced, of nine fascinating pieces – ok, maybe there was one I wasn’t that keen on, but I just don’t think I had the time to pay attention to it. Eight short pieces were crammed into the first half, plus another one-act play after the interval, and a fantastic night of dramatic tension it truly was. I’ve rarely had such a varied and challenging experience in the theatre, on both an intellectual and emotional level.
Jonjo O’Neill opened the proceedings with Press Conference, a piece Pinter wrote for the 2002 National Theatre show Sketches, and a role which he himself originally performed. To an explosion of confetti that lingers, ironically, in your clothes and on the seats and floor for the rest of the evening, the Minister for Culture is received rapturously in some kind of totalitarian state, and then answers questions about the state attitude to children and women, which includes killing them and raping them (“it was part of an educational process”). It’s so outrageous that you’re completely shocked, but the juxtaposition of upbeat jollity and Mr O’Neill’s excellent performance, means it’s hard not to laugh, even though you hate yourself for doing so. You reassure yourself with the thought “it couldn’t happen here…” but then you look around you at the world today, and wonder…. A perfect introduction to a disturbing evening’s entertainment.
Precisely, a 1983 sketch originally performed by Martin Jarvis and Barry Foster, featured Maggie Steed and Kate O’Flynn, suited up like two overfed and over-indulged politicians, discussing how to carve up the country for some unknown plan that’s clearly just for their own benefit and no one else’s. Maggie Steed in particular reminded me of the way they used to represent Mrs Thatcher in Spitting Image – with Churchill’s suit and cigar – gritty, cynical, powerful. As is nearly always the case with Pinter, the non-specific nature of the threat made it all the more unsettling. Terrifically acted, brief to perform but hard to forget.
The New World Order, first performed in 1991, shows Des (Jonjo O’Neill) and Lionel (the brilliant Paapa Essiedu) tormenting a naked, silent, blindfolded prisoner (Jonathan Glew), and reminded me so much of the mental torturers Goldberg and McCann in The Birthday Party only forty years on. Whilst the majority of their vitriol is hurled against the prisoner, the more experienced Des sometimes challenges the more youthful Lionel about his approach, criticising his use of language: (“You called him a c*** last time. Now you call him a prick. How many times do I have to tell you? You’ve got to learn to define your terms and stick to them.”) Like Press Conference, at times it’s incredibly funny, but the overwhelming atmosphere is one of terror.
Next, Mountain Language, a 1988 play that Pinter wrote following a visit to Turkey, although he always insisted that it was not based on the political situation between Turks and Kurds. In some miserable military camp, prisoners are apparently taken captive for the crime of speaking the “mountain language”. They are mountain people, the language is their own language, but it has been outlawed. The deprivation and penalties for transgressing this law are severe. Even though the threat in this play is a little more obvious, it’s no less sinister; and, as in The New World Order, there is an element of comedy in the interplay between the captors and interrogators, as well as some nonsensical rules that cannot be followed – such as when the old woman has been bitten by a Dobermann Pinscher but the authorities won’t do anything about it unless they can tell them the name of the dog. Jamie Lloyd’s direction brings out the starkness of the situation and I loved the decision to give the role of the Guard to the disembodied voice of Michael Gambon – a very effective way of increasing the “otherworldly” aspect of the play. Riveting, disturbing, unforgettable.
Then we had Kate O’Flynn performing Pinter’s poem American Football. I think I was still so overwhelmed by the themes and imagery of Mountain Language that I scarcely noticed this short piece. It was written in 1991 as a reaction to the Gulf War, and satirises the action of the American military at war as if they were just playing a game of football. It didn’t, for me, have the stand-out nature of the other pieces; maybe if it had been repositioned in the running order it might have worked better? Genuinely not sure.
Then an unexpected moment of lightness. The Pres and the Officer is a short piece only discovered by his widow Lady Antonia Fraser last year in a notepad; she remarked that his handwriting was quite frail so presumably he wrote it sometime in his final years – he died in 2008. Lady Antonia said she has often been asked what Pinter would have made of Trump – so now we know! This presages the American president so accurately that it takes your breath away. The simple premise: the President gives the order to nuke London. He says they had it coming to them. After a short conversation with his officer, he realises he made a mistake and it should have been Paris. So many questions, so little time. With a guest star playing the unnamed President (I think it was Jon Culshaw) this little sketch is horrifyingly hilarious.
Another poem next; Death, from 1997, given a sombre but effective reading by Maggie Steed. It takes the form of a clinical set of questions about a dead body that have a strange way of making you think about death and the dead in an unemotional way. A simple, but fascinating poem, which I enjoyed very much, despite its dour subject matter.
That led us into the final piece before the interval, One For The Road, and the first time I’d seen Antony Sher on stage since Peter Barnes’ Red Noses for the RSC in 1985. His performance as the creepy, faux-avuncular Nicolas, doing a one-man nice cop nasty cop routine as part of an interrogation procedure, was outstanding and worth the ticket price alone. Dominating both Paapa Essiedu’s Victor and Kate O’Flynn’s Gila into nervous wrecks, the most chilling scene was his interrogation of seven-year-old Nicky, their son, played with fantastic confidence by young Quentin Deborne. It was when Nicolas was fingering the neckline of Nicky’s T-shirt you could really feel your sweat forming and your gorge rising. A riveting play with an immaculate performance, and, despite its awfulness, I loved it.
All that, and it was only just time for the interval! After the ice-cream and Chardonnay break, it was back for Ashes to Ashes, directed by Lia Williams. Kate O’Flynn and Paapa Essiedu starred in this moving and disturbing one-act play from 1996; partly a stream of consciousness between a couple in a relationship, partly a sequence of reminiscences and imaginings, partly a conversation with a counsellor in therapy. Because Pinter keeps all the references as obscure as possible, this play can mean all things to all people, but there is definitely a suggestion of families being torn apart on the way to a Concentration Camp at the end of the play. Superb performances – and an exceptional lighting design by Jon Clark that added enormously to the mood and the terror.
After the relative frothiness of the afternoon’s Pinter Two programme, this was an emotional sucker punch that left us sitting in our seats for minutes after it had ended, trying to make sense of all that had gone before. Brilliant performances throughout, but it’s Kate O’Flynn and Paapa Essiedu who had the majority of the work to do, and they carried it off amazingly. And, to cap it all, Antony Sher’s nauseatingly superb interrogator Nicolas ran off with the Best Characterisation of the Night award. Congratulations to the whole cast for an awe-inspiring production.
Production photos by Marc Brenner