Pinter at the Pinter One
The Jamie Lloyd Company
Harold Pinter Theatre
Jamie Lloyd does not do things by halves. He has bravely undertaken the full set of Harold Pinter's shorter plays across a whole season that will eventually fill the theatre named after the playwright for around the next six months, Starting with a wonderfully tempting double bill (see Pinter at the Pinter Two).
His opening sally features eight very short pieces, not only plays but also the occasional poem. Every one of these is chilling, looking into the heart of repressive regimes of the kind that perennially seem present somewhere in the world.
Worryingly, every single one of these could easily have been written today and each speaks volumes about the nature of our society.
He opens with Press Conference, a satire in which the British Minister for Culture played by Jonjo O'Neill cynically compares his current role with the job that he left to take it on as head of the security services. In his eyes, the differences between the two are minimal.
This sliver of dialogue features two government ministers or possibly civil servants discussing a plan to save society. The 20 million expenditure that they are discussing may not be quite as innocent as it seems. In an extra twist, Lloyd casts the two female actors to take these quintessentially masculine roles.
The New World Order
Jonjo O'Neill and Paapa Essiedu portray a pair of gleeful torturers using mental disintegration techniques and have a great fun at the expense of a naked, blindfolded victim.
The slightly longer work will still resonate deeply with audiences. It features harsh soldiers in confrontation with an old woman played by Maggie Steed and a younger version by Kate O'Flynn.
The former tries to speak in the only language that she knows, which is now outlawed, while her new friend is on a mission to discover the fate of her husband, which becomes all too apparent before the end of the play.
An added bonus is that Sir Michael Gambon, who was in the audience at the press day production, provides the voice of the Guard.
This is a short, rabble-rousing rant in which a US serviceman uses triumphalism to demonstrate the power that her country holds.
The Pres and an Officer
What might otherwise have seemed a quaint, historical piece of writing takes on new meaning in this interpretation by Lloyd.
It features Jon Culshaw as the President of the United States calmly demanding that London be nuked, much to the very predictable shock and distress of his senior army colleague.
The twist here is that the president wears that farcical golden wig with which we have all become familiar over the last couple of years. The problem—it seems totally convincing.
This might be a short poem meditating on the end-of-life, but it has immense power and fully justifies a place in this programme.
One for the Road
The longest piece in the lead up to the interval features Sir Antony Sher as a blasé torturer from the kind of state where these were de rigueur who first meets and interrogates a man, then subsequently his wife and child.
The most alarming part of a frighteningly convincing performance in what can in the early stages seem like a monologue is that it feels written from real life.
Ashes to Ashes
After the interval, Lloyd hands over the directorial reins to Lia Williams, who works with Kate O'Flynn and Paapa Essiedu on a deeply unsettling play set in a comfortable living room.
The pair play a husband and wife discussing experiences from the lady's past.
Amid some very deliberate confusion, she relates a story that could be based on dreams or memories. Either way, in a bravura performance from Kate O'Flynn, who shows far more emotion than Lindsay Duncan who created the role in the original production over two decades ago, we hear of atrocities that recall the Nazis.
However, what makes this work special is Harold Pinter's knack of making the universal very, very personal.
Ashes to Ashes is the perfect finale to a wonderful opener to what promises to be a worthy and fascinating Pinter retrospective that should be compulsory viewing for fans of the playwright but also of serious theatre.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher