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Being Harold Pinter

Adapted from the plays and Nobel prize speech of Harold Pinter by Vladimir Shcherban
Belarus Free Theatre
The Young Vic Theatre

Being Harold Pinter. Credit: Nicolai Khalezin
Being Harold Pinter Credit: Nicolai Khalezin
Being Harold Pinter Credit: Nicolai Khalezin

There is a quiet minimalism to the opening of the Belarus Free Theatre performance of Being Harold Pinter.

A single walking stick stands at the front of a black stage. Four actors in black suits and white shirts sit silent and still on black chairs at the corners of the stage. Another actor in a black suit and white shirt walks forward as the writer Harold Pinter.

Picking up the stick he tells us about a time in 2005 when, as he stepped out of a car, the stick slipped causing him to gash his head on the pavement. A small red streak of paint is then smeared onto his face.

The way the things we trust can suddenly and unexpectedly fail us is a theme that runs through this powerful and disturbing play directed by Vladimir Shcherban.

Being Harold Pinter links together extracts from Pinter’s plays by the use of some of Pinter’s own words taken from his extraordinary 2005 Nobel Prize speech. Each extract shows a violent, menacing side to relationships we are often expected to trust.

There is a trivial cruelty involved in the father and son relationship we see in The Homecoming. A more ambiguous and frightening level of abuse takes place between a man and a woman in Ashes to Ashes. They may be sexual partners or perhaps a therapist with his client. We can never be sure.

As the woman recounts to the man her experience of another man who may have been an abusive lover, he begins to enact on her some of the violence she has described. The whole scene has an unnerving, dream-like quality.

Later extracts focus on the violence of State institutions. Interrogators torture a family before murdering a child in One for the Road. Prison guards refuse to help a woman badly bitten by one of their dogs in Mountain Language. One officer simply asks for the name of the dog, because as he explains dogs must give their name before biting. They compound their cruelty by refusing to let the woman communicate in her own language.

There is often a pointless aspect to the brutality of the state officials. The play’s director has two interrogators unzip and zip their trousers close to a blindfolded and cuffed near-naked prisoner. As Pinter caustically comments in his Nobel speech, "one sometimes forgets that torturers become easily bored. They need a bit of a laugh to keep their spirits up."

The final minutes of the play take us to the testimony of people wrongly arrested and then assaulted in Minsk during the time of protests against the Belarus government in 2005. The theatre is in total darkness as we hear their voices and then the urgent final passionate words of Pinter’s Nobel speech.

"I believe that, despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision, we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us—the dignity of man."

Being Harold Pinter is part of a two-week festival of ten shows from the Belarus Free Theatre. All the shows in the festival are live-streamed and are available for two weeks to see free at the Ministry of Counterculture.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna