Pinter One and Pinter Two ★★★★

The first two double bills of Pinter shorts at The Pinter bode well for a must-see season

Pinteresque: enigmatic, sinister, comic, dangerous… The adjective coined to describe the great iconoclastic playwright’s style is more than the sum of these. Marking the 10th anniversary of Harold Pinter’s death, this ambitious completist season of his 20+ short works gets off to a promising start with the first two of seven bills. If a common theme links them, it is power and politics, whether it’s in the theatre of war and conflict or in the bedroom. Pinter One, a packed first half of eight shorts and a second half comprising just one play, Ashes to Ashes, is the more overtly disturbing bill. Pinter Two, consisting simply of two plays dealing with sexual politics usually paired together – The Lover and The Collection – is superficially lighter fare, but the disturbing undercurrents are present and correct.

When we spoke to Jamie Lloyd, the director behind the project, in the July 2018 issue of JR, he pointed out Pinter “recognises that so much of our interaction with each other contains some kind of battle for supremacy”. “Rhythm is the key,” he declared, when performing work by such a man. Lloyd, who directs all of Pinter Two and the first half of Pinter One, along with Lia Williams, the seasoned performer of Pinter, who directs Ashes to Ashes, together with their stellar casts, certainly practise what Lloyd preaches in a series of finely calibrated performances.

Pinter One 1 © Marc Brenner.jpg

Pinter One literally starts with a bang, as a confetti gun showers the audience. However, it’s soon clear that use of real guns preceded this press conference, where Jonjo O’Neill’s spokesman for the victors answers questions, referring, for example, to “liquidating the subversive threat of children” in a chillingly reasonable voice. In The New World Order, O’Neill and Paapa Essiedu make a double act of torturers, like a British Reservoir Dogs, encircling their naked blindfolded victim with almost orgasmic utterances: “I love it. I feel so pure.” True, there is a delicious fragment, recently discovered among his papers by Pinter’s widow, Lady Antonia Fraser, entitled The Pres and An Officer. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, played by brilliant impressionist Jon Culshaw as a ginger-wigged dead ringer for Trump. But even that has ‘The Pres’ ordering the nuking of a London he confuses with French capital Paris.

The remaining, longer pieces are no laughing matter. This week a BBC radio reporter, recounting the story of a meeting in northern Greece, gave an elderly speaker of the banned language Macedonian a pseudonym because he would be in danger if named. This mirrors the situation in Mountain Language, where prisoners of a victorious army and their womenfolk are forbidden to speak their own ‘mountain language’, making it frighteningly topical.

Pinter Two 1 © Marc Brenner.jpg

The guards humiliate and terrorise the women, invading their personal space, forcing them to stand painfully upright for hours. This provides a telling link to One for the Road, a piece dominated by the scarily intimate presence of Antony Sher’s interrogator, so that it’s almost a monologue, since the family (mother, father and little son) he is holding separately are forced to stand or sit almost wordless as he plays his power games. Here again he invades their personal space with ingratiating, ‘self-deprecating’ faux bonhomie, calling himself “the chatty type” and gradually revealing, as he helps himself to a succession of top-ups from his whisky bottle, his deadly narcissistic offence at being spat at and kicked by the child (feisty Quentin Deborne). Again, there’s a sinister line: “I love death.”

The tortured parents are Paapa Essiedu and Kate O’Flynn, she almost unbearably vulnerable in a white slip, barely able to stand. She is similarly clad in Ashes to Ashes, again playing opposite Essiedu, apparently sharing her halting recollection of a disturbing, abusive relationship with this horrified new lover, confusing that memory with a fragmentary account of a child being taken away on a train – a Holocaust nightmare perhaps? By turns loving and abusive, repeating the order to her to “kiss my fist”, is this a new lover repeating the abuse cycle or one lover playing power games all along? That is the enigma of Pinter, and both actors are frighteningly convincing.

Set and costume designer Soutra Gilmour’s swivelling metallic walls, with their steep angles, lit eerily by Elliott Griggs and George Dennis’s menacing soundscape add to the chill, unsettling atmosphere.

Pinter One © Marc Brenner.jpg

At first sight, Pinter Two is a rosier affair, literally, on Gilmour’s pretty pink caricature of a cosily lit 50s suburban living room set. It’s here, in The Lover, that married couple Richard and Sarah indulge in sexual and sexy fantasies, spicing up their marriage with elaborate role playing as each other’s extramarital squeezes. There’s plenty of fun to be had from Richard as park keeper and macho lover with cool outfit to match as against wet and weedy office worker, especially as he is let down by a shirt untidily stuffed into his trousers. Meanwhile Sarah dolls up mid-afternoon in a lacy evening frock and high heels, and there’s lots of nattily choreographed business to upbeat period music to bridge the ‘liaisons’. But the fun abates as the contrast in his and her language becomes more marked. She sticks to “lover”, he begins to replace “mistress” with “whore” and “slut” and the games have a potentially violent, destructive edge.

John Macmillan and Hayley Squires are pitch perfect as Richard and Sarah, a precision they bring to their roles in The Collection. Here again Pinter explores the power balance in relationships in a sort of musical chairs between two couples. Elegant, house-proud Harry’s rather younger, more ‘street’ live-in partner Bill may or may not (this is Pinter) have shared a night in a Leeds conference hotel with James’s wife Stella. Harry’s paranoia is matched by James’s and neither is above phoning at unsocial hours or even door-stepping the other, but this leads to promiscuous Bill subtly tangling with James. David Suchet’s fussily effete Harry and Russell Tovey’s sexy Bill expertly navigate the subtlety of speech and body language with another pair of nuanced performances from Macmillan and Squires. It’s all intriguingly, perfectly Pinteresque.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Marc Brenner

Pinter One and Pinter Two run until Saturday 20 October. P1: 7.30pm (Tue, Fri & Sat), 2.30pm (Thu only). P2: 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Sat only & 9 Oct). £15-£65. Harold Pinter Theatre, SW1Y 4DN. 084 5871 7615. www.pinteratthepinter.com