The drop-curtain resembles a granite slab on which the genius’s name has been carved for all time. The festival of Pinter at the Harold Pinter Theatre feels like the inauguration of a godhead. And it’s not easy to separate the work from the reverence that surrounds it. Pinter One consists of sketches and playlets written in the period after 1980 when the author abandoned his anarchic underclass comedies and set about analysing power and its abuses. But his originality deserted him and he began to write like a student troll with a sadistic streak.
In Press Conference a newly appointed minister discusses murdering dissidents’ children by snapping their necks. In Precisely, two boozy establishment figures chat about bumping off 20 million citizens. The New World Order consists of a naked prisoner being mocked by a pair of nattily dressed bullies. Quite a charmless overture. Mountain Language is a famous short play inspired by Saddam Hussein’s treatment of the Kurds. The script looks at a minority ethnic group whose native tongue is being stamped out and we meet three victims in various states of distress. Pinter’s chaotic structure and his perfunctory characterisation make the drama hard to follow. And the visual brutality flirts with voyeurism. An unclothed convict, about whom we know nothing, is shown covered in blood, shaking pathetically, with his pants around his ankles. Another tableau involves a young widow offering herself as a sex toy to the irregulars who murdered her husband.
All these dispiriting vignettes fail for the same reason. They aren’t dramatic. Power rests with the thuggish despots while the downtrodden victims can never fight back or redeem themselves. Pinter, in his political phase, invariably portrayed the bad guys as English toffs. Was he suggesting that tyranny and genocide are native to the Home Counties and nowhere else on earth?
The scene shifts to Washington for The Pres and an Officer in which a clueless ex-alcoholic Jesus freak has taken over the White House. This dangerous clown, based on George W. Bush, accidentally nukes London and later realises his mistake and orders the destruction of Paris instead. A weak skit, too blunt and unintelligent to amuse, has been updated by turning the moronic chief into Donald Trump. Even feebler, really, but the crowd loved it.
In One For The Road, a drunken, loquacious psychopath — English, again — works as a secret policeman. He amuses himself by interviewing a family of victims in turn: a terrified dad, an innocent child and its oft-raped mother. Pinter’s analysis of the torturer’s character is acute and disturbing. Having subjected his victims to unknown physical torments, he sets about wrecking their personalities. He doesn’t even touch them, he merely lets his index finger hover half an inch from their irises while chatting amiably about the beauty and vulnerability of the eye.
This is a horrifically unnerving piece of theatre and Antony Sher plays the part with brilliant creepiness. He’s the highlight of the show. Yet the effect, as before, is ruined by a lack of balance. Sher’s character has all the best lines while his prisoners are simply quivering, sweating puppets. The last play, Ashes to Ashes, is a morose fantasy involving a young woman who recalls being half-strangled by a man who may or may not be her boyfriend. She rambles on about cinema trips and her fear of drowning in a tsunami of Bisto. After an obscure bout of violence, the pair are caught in a shaft of light while they witter beseechingly about lost babies. It’s hard to argue that this script merits revival. And anyone hoping for a theatrical treat will be dismayed by the relentless and gratuitous misanthropy of Pinter One.
Antony and Cleopatra works best when the leads have matching levels of charisma. Open-shirted Ralph Fiennes plays Antony as a dolorous billionaire torn between romance and ambition. His moist doggy eyes drool with lust for Sophie Okonedo who exudes sexiness and regality. Okonedo has enough wit and lightness to turn Cleopatra into a figure of hilarity but she holds back a little so that she can find the solemnity and stoicism in the final scenes.
Simon Godwin’s handsome, amenable production features excellent music by Michael Bruce. And the modern-day setting works better than usual. Cleopatra’s boudoir looks like a bad-taste 1970s shag-pad with a sunken turquoise swimming-pool in which Eros (a brilliantly understated Fisayo Akinade) is ignominiously dunked. The details don’t always work. A war-room featuring split-screen TVs is very distracting. Pompey’s flagship has been rendered as a submarine, which the characters call a ‘galley’ equipped with ‘sails’. Antony’s deputy, Enobarbus, is played by Tim McMullan, an oddball talent with a gaunt, snooty face and a marvellously oaky voice. He starts as a facetious courtier and ends as an isolated and suicidal traitor. McMullen gets every note in this enormous transition just right.