First and Last Things are brought to light in the newest instalments of Jamie Lloyd’s epochal season presenting all of Harold Pinter’s short plays. Pinter Five and Six take us from the unsettling claustrophobia of Pinter’s first play, 1957’s The Room, through to the satirical exasperation of his last, Celebration, from 2000. The complex violence and curious poetry of Pinter’s distinctive vision are thrillingly brought to life with grimly comic energy and frosty precision.
The Room takes place in a damp boarding house where strange things happen, a world of downstairs damp, leaking pipes and bitter cold. The detail of Patrick Marber’s clipped direction and Soutra Gilmour’s closed-off period set foster an oppressive atmosphere, with convincingly agitated ensemble performances.
Jane Horrocks brings subtle fragility and fear to Rose Hudd, thankfully avoiding the squawking pepperpot archetype of many of Pinter’s housekeeping women. Nicholas Woodeson’s Mr Kidd is a plump Bob ‘oskins type in a cardigan and mittens, with a sticky combover and pendulous trousers, played with a measure of evasiveness and plain not-listening. He may or may not be the landlord. Rupert Graves is inscrutable as the silent husband who returns to the room to suddenly and shockingly beat the blind visitor Riley possibly to death without explanation.
Pinter’s plays typically privilege personal tensions over plot. Motivations are often unclear and conflicting, and the action is minimal. The naturalistic setting of The Room helps anchor the mysterious implacableness of encounters that don’t follow conventional sequence or dramatic logic. The plays work by pure symbolism without naturalistic intent, as when Riley’s blindness transfers from him to Rose at the climax of The Room. In Pinter’s finest work you might not only doubt every character’s name, role, past, you might not even be sure if they’re alive or dead.
Marber’s triple bill Pinter Five is thoughtfully grouped together with tantalizing continuities and correspondences. When the name Riley recurs in 1981’s epistolary radio play Family Voices you have to wonder if we’re meant to make the connection. In the absurd ironic humour of 1982’s Victoria Station the question “Why is it dark?” came as a callback to The Room where the same question is asked about the basement. Why is it dark? Because the light’s not on.
Jamie Lloyd’s double bill Pinter Six is thrilling oil-black pitch with lightning flashes—pure power and darkness, a double bill of withering satire dissecting class pretensions. Crashing in to the deafening chords of Handel’s Sarabande, Party Time is like A Clockwork Orange meets the Kardashians. Celebration is more like an extended sketch than a play; a withering observation of vulgar nouveau riches in gold dresses and bright blue leisure suits with wide collars. The ensemble cast play these awful people with glee; Phil Davis is particularly grisly. Pinter’s satire may be somewhat crude, but John Simm’s vilely coiffured Yorkshireman Terry really chewing on the words “Real class” is cruelly observed.
Echoing and amplifying Riley’s entrance in The Room, the climactic moment when Abraham Popoola’s Jimmy whinnies on, trailing like a giant bough, bound and bleeding, is a terrifying vision of Caliban’s revenge. As the complacent guests carouse at the end of a brutal century, oblivious to the forces gathering outside their door, I thought of the apocalyptic imagery of Yeats’s poem The Second Coming: “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Reviewed by AJ Dehany
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