Review - Pinter at the Pinter: Pinter One at the Harold Pinter Theatre
Harold Pinter, who died 10 years ago, has had his work regularly produced at the theatre that since 2011 has born his name, formerly the Comedy on Panton Street, most recently with revivals of The Birthday Party at the beginning of this year, Old Times in 2013 and Betrayal in 2011. There's a famous anecdote that, when Pinter himself mused to fellow playwright Tom Stoppard that this particular theatre be named after him, Stoppard is said to have replied, "Wouldn't it be easier if you changed your name to Harold Comedy?”
Now an entire six-month season is being devoted to his mostly shorter, less frequently performed work there under the stewardship of director Jamie Lloyd, which for star wattage alone has the most impressive billing on any London stage. But it has to be admitted that the opening bill of four short plays (plus a recently found sketch and two poems) is not, as Cilla Black would have said, “a lorra lorry laughs”. So perhaps it’s just as well that the theatre is not called the Comedy anymore after all.
This is drawn from Pinter's politically engaged (and enraged) later writing, in which he writes piercingly, presciently and ominously about torture and interrogation in totalitarian regimes. Most of this work has been seen in productions before at theatres including the Royal Court, Lyric Hammersmith and National Theatre.
But there's one big surprise (and disturbing delight): a sketch found in his papers by his wife Antonia Fraser called The Pres and An Officer, in which the president of the United States, in a fit of pique and misplaced rage, unleashes a nuclear attack on London. Unfortunately, this is all too plausible in the age of Donald Trump, and director Lloyd underlines it by having the part played by a Trump-a-like in looks and mannerisms. The role will be played by a rotating guest star - on the press day, it was Jon Culshaw, who made it as brilliant and topical as a Saturday Night Live sketch.
As it is, the show is not short on star power, with Antony Sher making a rare, non-RSC West End appearance as the cool interrogator of a prisoner and his wife and child in the meaty, chilling One for the Road. Another, newer RSC star Paapa Essiedu is his victim, with Kate O'Flynn as the victim's traumatised wife. It's a precise, anguished play, and deliberately difficult to watch.
Director Lloyd and his regular design collaborator Soutra Gilmour nail the intensity and integrity of this writing with razor-sharp images, at once startling and upsetting.
That's true throughout the show, whether as we watch more scenes of interrogation in New World Order and Mountain Language, or a couple coming to terms with their own past in Ashes to Ashes (directed by regular Pinter star Lia Williams).
There's not much respite or light relief here, but this show - broodingly lit by Jon Clark and set to an ominous soundtrack by George Dennis - rivets the attention. It's a superb statement of intent about the seriousness and questing intelligence of this season.
"Pinter One... deals more obviously with domination and has a pulverising quality that left a matinee audience emerging dazed into the sunlight".
Michael Billington, The Guardian (four stars)
"Anchored by Sir Antony Sher's thrillingly unpleasant performance, (One for the Road) is a tense and harrowing 25 minutes".
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard (three stars)
Pinter One tickets are available now.