Harold Pinter Theatre, London – until 20 October 2018
Both these plays, part of Jamie Lloyd’s ingenious idea for a complete season of Harold Pinter’s short works, are from the early 1960s. Nearly 60 years later any normal playwright’s work would be showing its age, but as time passes it becomes increasingly apparent how effortlessly Pinter’s writing transcends its time. Both plays remain thoroughly disconcerting, gleefully dismantling conventional assumptions about sexual and power relations. They are also both very funny, and Pinter’s under-rated humour is given more space than usual to breathe in a pair of sharp, fresh productions, both directed by Lloyd.
The Lover, the better-known of the two, is a two-hander in which it quickly becomes clear that the perfect couple can only express themselves through their elicit alter egos. Set in a pink-walled, ideal home box of a living room, Lloyd consciously locates the piece in its specific era. He directs the piece as something nearer to a farce than the usual, slower pace and brooding naturalism that is standard for Pinter. It’s a controversial decision but a clever one, highlighting an affinity with Joe Orton while also taking the play out of its customary, setting in the sort of internal Pinter time where his plays are usually located.
If Pinter’s plays are to remain current, new approaches are needed to test the possibilities and limits of the text. In The Lover, John Macmillan and Hayley Squires perform with a self-consciousness verging on the frantic, which jars at first. However, the style soon jels with the text which conceals complete desperation behind a very brittle curtain of normality. Squires is the calmer presence, in control of the situation throughout, initiating and directing the uninhibited sexual transgression that hilariously mocks and subverts the basic concepts of a conventional relationship.
The relationships are even less conventional in The Collection, a four-hander which takes three men and a woman and draws a desire line between them with no regard for the socially acceptable, or even definable. Again it’s the woman who is at the centre of the sexually fluid scenes, enabling the boundaries to be broken. Squires seems to have slept with Russell Tovey’s Bill, at a threateningly banal Pinter-esque conference in Leeds. Bill lives with bitchy, older dress designer Harry (David Suchet). Husband Macmillan comes round to play the heavy, but his interest in Bill is not that of a rival. The play contains some irresistible parts in which Tovey and Suchet, in particular, revel.
Tovey is a classic, cocky, muscular Pinter thug who provides both needle sharp put-downs and the promise of physicality, whether violent, sexual or both. Suchet makes absolutely every line count, rolling his description of Bill as a ‘slum slug’ around his mouth with equal portions of disgust and relish, and playing power games over a morning newspaper. A delicious set of performances cap an evening that makes a very strong case for seeing how Pinter’s other short plays seem when presented afresh.