Featured Plays: Press Conference, Precisely, The New World Order, Mountain Language, American Football, The Pres and an Officer, Death, One for the Road, Ashes to Ashes
Writer: Harold Pinter
Director: Jamie Lloyd and Lia Williams
Reviewer: Alex Ramon
One of the most highly anticipated events of the year in London theatre, Jamie Lloyd’s six month season of Harold Pinter’s One Act and short plays, undertaken to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the playwright’s death, gets off to a bold and hard-hitting start with a selection of Pinter’s political material. Lloyd has form when it comes to Pinter, having directed a revival of The Homecoming in 2015, and, prior to that, a somewhat misbegotten production of the rarely-seen early work The Hothouse, starring Simon Russell Beale and John Simm. That play – with its broad and blackly comic take on bureaucratic extremism and state-sanctioned torture – feels like a significant precursor to this opening selection of work, which focuses on power and abuses of power in their many guises.
Lloyd’s Pinter productions have so far proved rather divisive, with some commentators accusing him of over-emphatic directorial decisions that undermine the ominous ambiguousness that is the playwright’s trademark. That tendency is sometimes evident here, particularly in the opening moments, in which Jonjo O’Neill arrives in a shower of confetti and with a blast of “Rule Britannia” to deliver Press Conference, a Minister of Culture’s spin-strewn Q&A session on the topic of “cultural dissent.” And over-statement certainly marks Lloyd’s approach to The Pres and an Officer, which finds Jon Culshaw turning up in full Donald Trump drag to perform this newly-discovered piece about a very moronic President’s decision to nuke London (which he believes to be in France). Unfortunately, notwithstanding Culshaw’s immaculate impersonation, this juvenile offering, which suggests nothing so much as a sub-par Dead Ringers sketch, doesn’t do Pinter much credit, and might have been best left in the drawer where it was found.
Still, cumulatively, the stronger pieces here generate an impact, becoming – as Soutra Gilmour’s dark-hued set revolves, slides, and discloses – a relay on themes of oppression and violence. The material, drawn mostly from Pinter’s post-1980s output, has been thoughtfully assembled. Maggie Steed and Kate O’Flynn (looking like a dead ringer for Nick Cave) turn up as suited blokes blithely discussing genocide in Precisely, and return for a very powerful and disturbing take on Mountain Language. Indeed, Pinter’s deep concern with the politics of language emerges as a major theme in many of the pieces. For example, The New World Order emerges as a proto-Tarantino escapade here as two men (O’Neill and Paapa Essiedu) who are “keeping the world clean for democracy” chatter about what best to call the naked, blindfolded victim they’ve evidently been torturing. Maggie Steed slinks on in black to deliver a quietly devastating take on the poem Death and O’Flynn bounces through the anti-US sentiment of American Football. Anthony Sher contributes a tour de force as the death-loving official separately interrogating a couple (Essiedu and O’Flynn) and their seven-year-old son (Quentin Deborne) about perceived transgressions against the state, with the judicious casting contributing a racial dimension to the piece here.
The most haunting of the plays comes after the interval, with Essiedu and O’Flynn pairing again for Ashes to Ashes. Sensitively directed by Lia Williams on an ever-darkening set, the piece explores another of Pinter’s habitual themes: the anxiety of a male character attempting to uncover something about a woman’s mysterious past. Whether the couple here are husband and wife, therapist and patient, murderer and victim, or all of the above, is never clarified, but the play with its Holocaust echoes, emerges powerfully, with O’Flynn’s performance particularly memorable. Challenging and intense, a stark contrast to the fluffier fare that surrounds it, Pinter One is a distinguished addition to the West End.
Pinter at the Pinter runs until February 2019 | Image: Contributed