‘Action is eloquence' Act III, Scene II, Coriolanus
Appearing as a theatre-goer’s ultimate commandment, Pinter’s name towers above the audience, emblazoned on a concrete slab. The message is clear: he is one whose name is writ in stone. Imposing, redolent of the fierceness of Pinter’s writing, this provides a definitive contrast to the plays in which we know relationships will crumble. The jaunty jingle which accompanies the audience to their seats is evocative of the distinctive and haunting theme from The Third Man, and, to indulge the comparison a little further, it can be said that Pinter acts as this third being, his presence always intensely felt, despite him not being physically present. It is interesting to parallel Pinter with film noir, as one can see the broodiness and dark angles reflected in his acidic writing; the words are cutting, and the silences lurk. The tension increases as the audience waits to find out how Pinter will make man ridiculous this time. What better subject suited for the purpose than that of infidelity. A double bill of it too. Wonderful.
There is always a risk, for me, for Pinter’s work to be, not reduced, but captured in a formula, as I have, perhaps pretentiously, put it: Pinter by numbers. With Pinter, we know we expect to be shocked and we await the drawn out sickening feeling that someone is at the point of no return. We are hammered and entertained by the lacerating, corrosive sadism which snarls in most of Pinter’s work, only lightly masked by the banality of the conversations’ topics, such as a front room’s need for blinds. The handling of words, the screaming silences. It can be predictable; we expect the mundane to turn terrible, whether it be the opening cornflake scene in The Birthday Party or a moment in the Caretaker when a viperous kid, slicked-back and kicking, indulges in a biting monologue about upholstery. Everything raucous and deliberate. Finish with an off-hand comment, and cue the dribbling embarrassment of the one under scrutiny leaking onto the stage and pooling at his feet. Don’t get me wrong; these scenes are blistering, but do I dare say expected?
Yet this was not the case for the plays I saw, The Lover and The Collection. This season, The Pinterhouse Theatre presents a showcase of Pinter’s shorter works (ingeniously titled Pinter at the Pinter). Pinter Two brings together two vacuum-packed one-act plays. Just as dark and, in places, as nasty as The Birthday Party (the last Pinter I saw), The Lover and The Collection are brilliant introductions to anyone who hasn’t seen his work before: they are gutting, punchy and absolutely hilarious. Pinter has been likened to Shakespeare for the way in which he commands, or shrinks a room, both in the script and out of it. Actors in his rehearsals recount stories of fumbling lines and his bluntness when asked for advice: “read the words”. And it is such a joy, or perhaps, to put it more accurately, a barbed pleasure, to listen to his words. You know you will leave either slightly disgusted with the feebleness of mankind or wincing at a certain character’s humiliation. But you also know you will be ridiculously entertained. The fun is finding out how.
The stage opens to a candy-coloured chocolate-box frilled at the edges 60s suburban home, occupied by a conventional married couple, Sarah and Richard. There is a polished table with a cloth to prevent scratches. The accents are crisp and overly pronounced; ‘How are you darling?’ is not suggestive of actual affection, but is instead loaded with the subsequent cheerful marital disintegration and sexual ridicule: ‘Did your lover call this afternoon?’ ‘Yes’. The humour is piercing; upon Sarah’s (Hayley Squires) confession that she thinks of Richard (John Macmillan) whilst having sex with her lover, his first response is: ‘That’s quite touching really’. There is an excellent moment when they fight over a bongo – a prop in Sarah’s morally unsound afternoons –which has to be seen to be fully appreciated. All very painful, and hilarious, but all the more so when it is divulged – in a classic Pinter moment – that Richard also has a lover. The play assumes a twistier route from then on as wife and husband try to wrangle superiority, one over the other, comparing their sexual satisfaction with their respective lovers, a power-play also evident in the second half of this selection: The Collection. That Macmillan and Squires – and the rest of the cast - so clearly understand - and perform- Pinter so well across two plays is testament to Jamie Lloyd’s direction. Played crisply – and I want to say with nuance, despite acting at fever pitch – by Macmillan, Richard wants the affairs to end. But this is not just a simple fact of infidelity, as a more complex reality is revealed; the couple can only be intimate with each other when pretending they are other people’s spouses. There is no infidelity, except that mentally constructed by the couple. Sarah’s comprehension of the temporality of this illusion is expressed expertly by Squires, as we feel for a woman convincing herself that her reality – ironically living in a world of pretence – is acceptable, and not emotionally destructive as it inevitably turns out to be. The instability of marriage and its paradoxical indispensability are therefore ridiculed, and all the while in the confined space in which ‘the lover’ supposedly was just a few hours before.
In the second piece, The Collection, the physical stage is less suffocating and the characters are potentially sharper, as James (John Macmillan) learns of his wife Stella’s (Hayley Squires) affair that took place during a dress-making conference in Leeds, and confronts the accused Bill (Russell Tovey). Suave and threatening – evoking the same seductive danger of The Third Man’s Harry Lime - James appears at Bill’s house in Belgravia which he shares with a wealthy member of the elite, Harry (David Suchet). Declaring James an intruder, Bill quickly inverts the role of accused/accuser, swaggering across the stage, goading and playful, but is devious and double-dealing, as the wife’s infidelity turns out to be false, the lie perpetuated by Bill for the fun of it. The tone shifts, and focus is on the husband who is left with a faithful, but empty marriage. There is an excruciating scene, when Harry, Tovey’s silk-swathed, charming but haughty older lover spits out that Tovey is a ‘slum-slug’, his manner from the ‘slums’ and that he is polluting the world with his ‘slum’ nature. Another thing that Pinter does well is show how damaging language can be; how it cannot, truly, be withdrawn.
These two plays work well together, as across both Pinter suggests how society dictates that marriage should appear happy from the outside, even to the detriment of the people within. It is more a contract of exclusion than a covenant of unbridled devotion. Hardly a revolutionary idea, but presented supremely well. Even Truth cannot stand firm and escape the murder behind Pinter’s pen as it is held to scrutiny. The word loses its currency, as, to a backdrop of infidelity, lies crackle across the stage.
When watching Pinter I am never sure whether he is a genius who fashions these situations to make us worry about the state of our inner selves, or if we worry about ourselves because these situations don’t need to be completely fashioned, just pared down or angled to get at the heart of how nasty and selfish most of us are. I would say that his characters are often heightened, but so often they bleed the truth. We watch because we like to be questioned; we relish seeing pathetic people reduced, and commanding people raging. The dissident is appealing; the lover all the more hilarious for being incompetent. Often the most absorbing factor in his plays is how details are withheld from the audience, as the very knowledge of the existence of something which has not been revealed is as enticing as it is frustrating. Yet what is brilliant is that, despite clearly being stylised, all of this volume and all of this emotion is delivered without drawing overt attention to itself. Pinter is a provoker, but can be so subtly. It needs to be said that he is also certainly not the only playwright in history who deserves his own playhouse, or even his own name carved into gargantuan stone. But he’s the only writer I know who can draw the tragedy of mankind out of a refusal of an olive. For that reason, I’d pit him against anyone.
Esther Bancroft – Theatre Editor
For more information about Pinter at the Pinter, click here