Harold Pinter Theatre, London – until 20 October 2018
The Pinter Season is off and rolling, and after a strong start, the second collection of one-act plays completes the repertory opener. Pinter Two is a complete change of tone from its companion collection, moving from social politics to more familiar Pinter territory, relationship politics. From the dystopian world of Pinter One where power and violence played openly together, The Lover and The Collection transfer to the 1960s to focus on deception, betrayal and game-playing where characters may or may not be active participants in a marital subterfuge.
This is not the first time director Jamie Lloyd has approached this particular Pinter pairing, 10 years ago he presented the same double bill at this very theatre to mostly positive reviews. As much as this entire season marks a decade since the playwright’s death, in Pinter Two the audience can also observe Lloyd actively revisiting his own past, exploring new ways to interpret and visualise the same plays and thinking about the extent to which his perspective on the work has shifted with experience.
The evening opens with The Lover a 45-minute duologue between a very ordinary married couple in which they openly discuss the regular afternoon visits by the Wife’s lover while her spouse is dutifully at work. When the titular character is finally revealed, it becomes clear that the Husband is tiring of such shenanigans and tries to convince his Wife that the open arrangement should cease. As decent domesticity and wantonness collide, the Wife refuses to change and decides to take control.
If you’ve seen Pinter One, then Soutra Gilmour’s sugary pink world of early 1960s homely perfection will be a charming surprise. Lloyd has set this new version of The Lover in a slightly exaggerated scenario that calls on unattainable ideas of domestic aspiration that filled post-war advertising. Not so very far from Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling, initially this seems a meticulously managed household, everything in its place with a central couple who look and dress the part, even addressing each other in slightly singsong tones to emphasise the exterior charm of their union.
But, of course, beneath this placid surface the rot has set in, with plenty of unhappiness and tension waiting to burst the bubble. Lloyd draws out the contradiction so well, contrasting how characters look and sound with what they say, building up to the disintegration of their fantasy life. Somehow Lloyd makes the veneer of civility look increasingly unsavoury as imposed social expectations of behaviour fight against natural urges and desires. In this way Pinter is showing us the nonsense of externally-created notions of decorum that work against human nature.
At the same time, this is an intimate story about fantasy creation that requires the collusion of two people with a mutual understanding of the rules. When the Husband decides to alter them, it allows reality to creep in, bringing with it implications of shame and guilt that reveal his inherent weakness. Pinter places the Wife entirely at home, so the fiction she creates for herself is far more integral to sustaining her sense of self, of allaying the frustrations of being a housewife which play out in her stronger need to maintain the illusion. Pinter is full of sensible strong women and it is her sexuality and pragmatism that drive the conclusion.
Hayley Squires’s supporting role was easily the best thing about last year’s rather cold Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and here she perfectly portrays the duality of the Wife, a domestic goddess on the one hand and practised seductress on the other. The couple’s entire life feels like a performance and Squires never let’s the audience know where the real woman begins and ends. Likewise, John Macmillan shows the Husband playing multiple roles and while he becomes increasingly frustrated, his true purpose is ambiguous. Does her really want to stop or is he trying to take the game to a new level?
Lloyd creates a feeling of chapters using occasional music but predominantly a sudden change of lighting to shift the tone, making scenes look richer when the couple are similarly-minded, and adding a greyer tinge when they are at odds – we even see a projection of the frequently mentioned Venetian blinds as the sun sets between scenes. Daylight, darkness and time matter in this play, and we see the Wife entertaining her lover only in the afternoon, noting she’s never seen him at sunset, whereas her Husband’s face belongs to the evening. The clock races through time as the couple’s clear distinction between day and night starts to blur.
Set entirely in the velvet-curtained night, Lloyd keeps The Collection in the 1960s but takes an entirely different approach to staging this tale of apparent adultery at a dress-makers event in Leeds. James believes his wife Stella has betrayed him and calls-up her supposed lover Bill to confront him, but Bill’s older lover Harry answers the phone instead. On finally tracking him down, James and Bill become friends, spending intimate evenings listening to opera, but the question of Bill and Stella keeps returning. Affronted by Bill’s sudden distraction, Harry seeks the truth.
This is a production that requires two locations and in his 2008 production Lloyd’s split-staged approach was criticised, so this version blends the respective homes together, trusting the audience to recognise that characters in the same space are not necessarily in the same room. It’s an excellent compromise, allowing the action to flow freely without restricting the view or impeding the performance, while being absolutely clear on who is where.
This time Lloyd and Gilmour call upon the tone and style of 60s movies to shape their new interpretation, sparingly using musical highlights that suggest a dark crime caper or mafia movie. The set uses deeper colours than The Lover, with a palette of forest greens and khaki tones that give the piece a wintry feel, while Lloyd emphasises the unnerving edge to the play. For Pinter fans, there’s much here that will resonate, the snappy dialogue and use of working-class characters to add a homoerotic implication feels like moments from No Man’s Land, drawing attention to (for the 1960s) the seemingly unusual domestic set-ups.
Despite it being a play about female infidelity, much of the interest centres around the three men and their changing interactions. Macmillan and Squires again play the central couple, but almost as an alternate reality from their previous incarnation. Stella and James are really another version of the Wife and Husband from The Lover, creating what may be a fantasy and openly sharing details with each other. In these plays no one appears to hide their betrayal.
Yet, the focus is predominantly on Harry and Bill whose relationship remains both clear and obscure at the same time. David Suchet’s Harry is possessive and demanding, a rich man who has some kind of hold over Russell Tovey’s Bill that keeps them together. Harry is petulant and uneasy, continually demanding Bill’s gratitude for the lifestyle that he provides for them. Suchet has the measure of the Pinter man exactly, registering low levels of menace throughout the performance tempered with intriguing moments of camp that elicit much of the play’s humour. His furious outburst in response to Bill’s disdainful attitude hint at a much larger backstory as he talks of rescuing him from a slum – the deliberate care with which Suchet weighs each word implies a seedy world based on class, money and prostitution which Stella and James have wandered into.
Harry never suggests any particular affection for Bill, which Suchet uses to create a sense of ownership, Bill is brought and paid for, maintained by Harry in a business transaction in which he expects loyalty in return – the tension comes from Bill’s casual response which infuriates his partner. The lengths Harry goes to protect that arrangement suggest a deeper feeling but Suchet translates that into jealousy and quiet fury, wanting nothing to interrupt the fantasy he has created around the two of them. It’s an engaging performance from Suchet, and one which suggests a Hirst at some point in his future.
In a way Russell Tovey’s Bill is aware of his dependency on Harry, but as with many of the Working-Class men in Pinter, he has an anarchic streak that likes to push against the confines of his existence. He’s certainly a game-player, equally attracted to men and to women which draws James into his sphere. Tovey slightly overdoes the “geezer” accent which occasionally brings an imbalance to his scenes, which should smooth out as the run continues, but he does suggest the level of Bill’s self-knowledge, a physical creation who must rely on his body to maintain his position.
Intriguingly, although the plot is driven by the alleged one-night stand between Bill and Stella – a possibility that despite Bill’s homelife seems credible in a character driven by grubby pleasure – Pinter never allows them to meet. In most drama there would need to be a scene in which all the characters come face to face and the truth is revealed, but here Pinter denies the audience this to emphasise the ambiguity. Stella becomes almost a secondary character, and it is Bill’s lies and the way he explores scenarios for his own amusement which dominated. Tovey’s Bill is therefore self-assured, almost permanently smirking as he toys with James and Harry, while still knowing how far he can take such entertainment without losing his very pretty situation.
As a pairing, these two plays offer light and shade in their presentation, one all about the shiny surface of advertising-like perfection and the other a more complex examination of dishonesty. Both reveal the underbelly of desire, where behaviours are driven by human need rather than decency or loyalty, and the ease with which individuals can throw-off the idea of responsibility. The Lover and The Collection deal with the idea of collusion, where characters deliberately opt-in to some form of game-playing but are destabilised when one partner decides to change the rules. The drama comes from reactionary attempts to return the status quo.
This is another great double bill in a season that’s already showing its mettle. The cast and creative team, led by Lloyd, are bringing a real clarity to the work that will help to engage new audiences who may have previously found Pinter rather inaccessible. Lloyd will direct the third collection from late October before temporarily handing the reins to others including Lyndsey Turner and Patrick Marber, which will make for an interesting changing of the guard as the season unfolds. But with two very engaging and differently-styled repertory collections now playing, Pinter at the Pinter is proving to be exactly what a season ought to be – inventive and meaningful, reminding us why Pinter remains such a force in modern theatre.
Pinter Two is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 20 October, with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.
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