One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.” This statement by Harold Pinter sums up excellently the motif that is characteristic of his work, and which makes his plays so powerful. In them, what is said is but a flimsy covering for the things that remain unsaid, revealing despite itself the raw nakedness of human emotion beneath. In Pinter Three, a collection of eleven of Pinter’s short plays touching on memory and loneliness, the “poverty within us” is picked out with brilliant clarity. Not explicitly, but obliquely – like the stark shadows cast by objects when a bright light is shone on them.
The evening opens to a phenomenal start with Landscape, a hard-hitting play which packs an emotional punch. Tamsin Grieg shines here as Beth, a woman lost in a romantic reverie of the past, using a lilting Irish accent that adds to the wistful nostalgia of the play. Keith Allen plays her foil as Beth’s crude, down-to-earth husband. Ostensibly having a conversation, an unbridgeable gulf yawns between the two. Who are they really talking to? Each is utterly alone in their own recollections, and the darkness in the story encroaches slowly, before we know it.
Grieg and Allen in Landscape bring out Pinter’s masterful ability to alternate between comic and tragic. Something will be funny, and all of a sudden, without warning, a character will let something slip, and we see that it is actually intensely sad. Another standout example is the short sketch Girls, with Tom Edden as a professor relating a story about “girls who want to be spanked”. Likewise with comedian Lee Evans’ brilliant rendition of Monologue, which Evans came out of retirement to act in. Chatting animatedly to an empty chair, the protagonist of Monologue is trapped in old memories and confabulations. But with his jaunty demeanour and spring-loaded mannerisms, Evans brings tears to our eyes – whether from laughter or sadness I’m not quite sure. We are swung from frank hilarity to aching sorrow in less than a heartbeat.
A great deal of what happens in a Pinter play happens between the lines, behind the scenes. What we see is merely the tip of the iceberg. Scratching the surface of loneliness. Whether it’s a man having a conversation with an absent friend, or a professor inventing a fantasy about a girl he’s seen once on the street. And yet there is tenderness to be found there, too. In Night, a man and a woman argue about the details of their first rendezvous – was it against railings, or on a bridge? Each has their own version of that magical first meeting, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. Evans and Meera Syal bring this beautiful little piece to life with truly believable affection.
Huge props to Jamie Lloyd for curating these eleven plays. Despite spanning almost fifty years of Pinter’s work, they flow smoothly in this frankly astounding production. Soutra Gilmour’s versatile revolving set, illuminated by a singular lightbulb, whirls us seamlessly from one scene to the next. With this remarkable cast of actors, we see the shades of emotional subtlety in each piece, how the nature of memory is wholly subjective. This is Pinter at his finest.