STEEL CELLS AND SADISM
Settling in, you’d think you were at the Cenotaph or the Tattoo. A military soundtrack booms out Imperial Echoes and Jupiter (I Vow To Thee My Country). The forecurtain has a single word in brutalist stone-grey letters and as it goes up there’s a deafening Rule Britannia. Oh, and a shower of tickertape.
The stony word is PINTER, and this launches a short season marking his death ten years ago by assembling, in seven sets, all his short playlets, sketches and poems, with starry casts including (in this first set) Paapa Essiedu, Maggie Steed and Antony Sher. This opener is themed on atrocity, repression, dictatorship and state torture.
It is no secret that Harold Pinter’s gift was for evoking threat, emotional cruelty and downright bullying, whether official or familial. The first half, directed by Jamie Lloyd, starts with the brief “Press Conference” in which a suave“Minister of Culture” speaks of annihilating subversive children. Next a bufferish caricature of two politicians dismissing millions of deaths, and an audio clip of the author himself about “putting my finger on the body politic of the world”. Next a naked figure sits on a chair while two torturers in shades gleefully discuss without detail how much they will do to him: there’s a playfulness which the author is enjoying worryingly much. The glee continues in the next one, as two thuggish soldiers ask impossible questions of cowering women trying to visit a bloodstained prisoner in a steel cell and the voice of Michael Gambon forbids them to use their language. In between these imagined atrocities the music blasts out Zadok The Priest, presumably to suggest that monarchy causes such things.
And on we go to Kate O’Flynn as an American Football cheerleader shrieking one of PInter’s favourite tropes about how “we blew the shit outa them, they’re suffocating in their shit, praise the Lord”. Oh, and a jejune joke “undiscovered” sketch in which a bad-wig Trump (a different guest star each time) orders “Nuke London”.
There is brief relief as Maggie Steed beautifully speaks his gentle poem about death, and then a longer, quite remarkable performance by Antony Sher interrogating, in a nightmare of suggestive bullying, a silent dissident. Then, really nastily, the man’s raped wife and small child. Sher is of course brilliant. And of course drama should reflect the existence of torture, fascist dictatorships, bleak cells, sadism and the banning of free speech (something which the ever-lionized Pinter never suffered). But the danger of anthologising like this is the lack of any specificity. Without relating it to the realities of Nazi Germany, Guantanamo, Syria ,Russia, China, wherever, or even and without even declaring it a dystopia – it can decline into mere sadistic fantasy. Wallowing.
Pinter does wallow, no question about it, and the director Jamie Lloyd’s belief that it is amusingly satirical to suggest with his Cenotaph-music that we’re in a fascist state here, is not only silly but an insult to those who really are in one. So the lack of context in that sequence bothered me.
As for the second half, where Lia Williams directs Ashes to Ashes with Kate O”Flynn and Essiedu, it is again well-executed. But dripping with sexual sado-masochism of the kiss-my-fist variety and, in the woman’s final words, rather disgustingly hijacking images of the Holocaust trains. Still, we were spared another blast of Zadok the Priest. Look, if you love this aspect of Pinter – the wallowing threat – you’ll not find it better evoked than in Pinter One. For the other six in the series, watch this space.
www.atgtickets.com to February