Harold Pinter was prolific, with more than 30 stage plays, almost as many screenplays and dozens of works of prose and poetry to his name. But while revered masterpieces such as The Birthday Party, No Man’s Land and Betrayal are regularly staged, there are fewer opportunities to see his equally brilliant shorter works.
Director Jamie Lloyd helps correct this with an ambitious season at Pinter’s eponymous theatre taking place over the next few months, staging some of his best one act plays. The first instalments, Pinter One and Pinter Two, can be seen in a single day, each offering an insight into a different facet of the playwright’s oeuvre.
Pinter One features five short plays, a couple of sketches and a poetry reading. The theme is political oppression, and while each play is distinct, they appear to overlap, the horrors of one spilling into the next, creating a kind of mosaic narrative.
Most chilling is One For the Road, featuring the incredible Antony Sher as an officer in an authoritarian government jovially torturing a dissident, his wife and their child while getting slowly sozzled. Written in 1984, there’s a distinctively Orwellian feel to the piece, a brutal and uncomfortable commentary on totalitarianism and the banality of evil.
Mountain People continues the theme, showing abusive soldiers denying a prisoner’s wife and mother their visiting rights, then refusing to let the older woman speak in her native tongue. There are shadows of the Troubles as well as the Soviet Union to these pieces, depicting a horrifying world where good men are broken and truth is malleable.
Another recently discovered piece entitled The Pres and the Officer is eerily prescient, featuring a vain, imbecilic US President mistakenly nuking London instead of Paris; dressing Jon Culshaw in blonde wig, orange tan and long red tie may have been over-egging the pudding.
Just as eye-opening are the plays in Pinter Two, which focus on the strange nature of love and sex. In The Lover a couple indulge in kinky afternoon role-play sessions until the lines between the “real” and imagined roles become blurred – it’s a hilarious skewering of relationship power dynamics.
The Collection is an even darker, more ambiguous examination of lust and jealousy, with the bisexual ‘slum-boy’ turned fashion designer Bill (Russell Tovey of Being Human) enraging his older ‘sponsor’ by having an affair with the wife of a bloke who now won’t stop hanging around the house helping himself to booze.
It explores ownership, sexual obligation, and, again, the subjectivity of truth. In all of these plays there’s an undercurrent of absurdity, the suggestion that the carefully constructed world around us is only ever a hair’s breadth away from collapsing into utter, irretrievable madness. What a way to spend a day: roll on parts three to seven.