It’s common for the presence and reputation of a playwright to dip after death, with the luckiest getting a later rediscovery. But, since Harold Pinter’s obituary led the BBC TV evening news on Christmas Eve 2008, all of his full-length dramas have had major revivals in London or New York.
Stars attracted to the richly ambiguous parts that Pinter, an ex-actor himself, crafted included Timothy Spall as the passive-aggressive tramp in The Caretaker; Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart as the duelling old men in No Man’s Land; Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz committing adultery backwards in Betrayal. Restagings of early plays – The Birthday Party, The Homecoming and The Hothouse – brought younger audiences to the author’s dark comic wordplay and power struggles through the smart casting of screen celebrities such as Gemma Chan, John Simm and Pearl Mackie.
Now, all 20 of Pinter’s shorter plays are being performed in the West End, across seven different evenings. (The first pair, Pinter One and Pinter Two – by Harold Pinter at the Harold Pinter Theatre – offers the theatrical equivalent of a matching trio on a fruit machine.) This means that, by February, when the project concludes, every piece of Pinter’s writing for theatre will have had a swift major posthumous revival: an accolade that eluded even his hero and fellow Nobel laureate, Samuel Beckett.
Critical tradition has tended to divide Pinter’s work between early plays that were seen as narratively ambiguous and later, explicitly political drama. But a more useful distinction is between conversations that take place in living rooms and those set in prison or interrogation cells.
Pinter One, for example, features mainly cell plays, including One for The Road (1984), in which a torturer separately interrogates allegedly dissident parents and their child, and Mountain Language (1988), where people are incarcerated for using their native tongue. Pinter Two pairs the room plays The Collection (1961) and The Lover (1963), originally screened on television before stage adaptations. Both are erotic comedies, in which what seems to be infidelity is emotional game-playing.
There was a recent media flurry about the supposedly unprecedented sexual content of the BBC One drama Wanderlust, but what seems truly astonishing in the history of TV is that Pinter was able to present material of such provocative tone and complex form six decades ago, and in ITV peak-time.
The weakest piece – Ashes to Ashes (1996), an opaque confrontation between a man and a woman who has memories of terrible violence – fails because it tries simultaneously to occupy room and cell. But the best pieces in separate styles have consistent interests; the personal can be seen as a metaphor for the political, and vice versa.
The most curious exhibit is The Pres and an Officer, a sketch uncovered last year by Pinter’s widow Antonia Fraser, which shows a crude, clueless, piously teetotal American president casually giving orders to nuke European capitals. Jon Culshaw plays the “Pres” with orange cosmetics and coxcomb wig, and the dialogue perfectly fits the tangerine tweeter-in-chief, leading theatre-goers to express astonishment that a writer who died when Donald Trump was just a realtor and reality TV star could have somehow prophesied his ascendancy.
In fact, Pinter was clearly writing about a previous non-drinking, non-thinking Republican commander-in-chief, George W Bush. This skewering of a future US leader illustrates one reason for Pinter’s thrilling durability: the absence of dating names and details, creating an ambiguity that irritated early critics, keeps the texts fresh. One for the Road and Mountain Language were inspired by a trip to 1980s Turkey, but their situations will sting for as long as there are states that censor and torture.
The second explanation for the high visibility of the plays is their extravagant rewards for actors. No other dramatist provides such a high ratio of impact to line-count or stage-time. Antony Sher only appears for the 25 minutes of One for the Road, but, by its end, we feel like we’ve seen King Lear and he looks like he’s played it. Behind a mannered, chuckling, insinuating carapace, he gives the torturer hints of sexual inadequacy and moral rot.
In The Lover, David Suchet’s meticulous verbal and physical mannerisms as a certain type of camp Sixties man, required by law to be discreet, include a remarkable tip-toeing hop across a room, culminating in a perfectly timed snuffing out of two candles. Across the first bill, Paapa Essiedu and Kate O’Flynn impress as a variety of villains and victims of political or sexual power, with director Jamie Lloyd adding coherence by plausibly suggesting that characters in texts written decades apart may be the same people. (The other directors across the season are Patrick Marber, Ed Stambollouian, Lyndsey Turner and Lia Williams.)
With appetising pairings of play and performer still to come – including Tamsin Greig as the sudden waker from sleeping sickness in A Kind of Alaska – Pinter at the Pinter already confirms the writer’s remarkable theatrical afterlife.
Pinter at the Pinter runs until 23 February
Pinter One and Pinter Two
Harold Pinter Theatre, London SW1
This article appears in the 10 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How austerity broke Britain