Through an earlier press release, I lately learned of Harold Pinter’s close relationship with Danny Dyer, to whom he was apparently something of a mentor or even a ‘father figure’. My initial bemusement was thoroughly trounced by Dyer’s performance in Pinter Seven, the last of Jamie Lloyd’s six-month season of Pinter’s short plays. This final instalment is a victory lap after a resoundingly triumphant season, the culmination of the parade of the most venerable British actors of modern times to grace the stage of the Harold Pinter theatre, in celebration of his career on the tenth anniversary of his death.
For his coup de grâce, Lloyd has paired one of Pinter’s best-known shorts, The Dumb Waiter, with the less familiar A Slight Ache. First up are Gemma Whelan (of Game of Thrones fame) and John Heffernan (most recognisable from his recent turn in Brexit: The Uncivil War). Here they are Edward and Flora, the middle-aged upper-middle class couple menaced by a mysterious elderly match seller who lingers at the bottom of their garden.
Though A Slight Ache was first performed as a radio play, it is more commonly staged live. Lloyd has chosen here to combine the two, adding the narrative frame of two actors recording the play in a sound studio. This is a novel take on the script, and one which has paid off. As the play unfolds, the classically ‘Pinteresque’ absurdities and unsettling inconsistencies are compounded by the bizarreness of watching it through the distortion of this frame. It’s clever, and it plays as though we are watching the two voice actors become steadily more embroiled in the play; the play within the play becomes the play. Somehow, Lloyd has succeeded in making Pinter all the more Pintery. Of course, he could not have done so without the arsenal of Whelan and Heffernan behind him, who carry off this tricky staging beautifully. Whelan especially delivers the role with clipped precision, balanced with Heffernan’s bluster. Together they draw out Pinter’s absurdity to excruciating perfection.
It’s not altogether an easy watch, but then Pinter relished an audience’s unease, demanded that they work to explore the unyielding territory of the intentionally ambiguous space between word and meaning. This ambiguity is, in his own words ‘not only worthy of exploring but it is compulsory to explore’. Both pieces of this pairing are preoccupied with the dynamic of power; Pinter himself was similarly preoccupied with the power dynamic between author and audience.
To follow after the interval comes Danny Dyer and Martin Freeman’s turn in perhaps Pinter’s most lauded short play of his ‘comedy of menace’ genre. Dyer and Freeman are the pair of hitmen holed up in a dingy basement awaiting further instruction from the mysterious ‘Wilson’. As they bicker inanely over idioms, between Freeman’s incessant questioning and Dyer’s tightly-wound terseness, they spread a thin film of casualness gently on top of their palpable underlying jitters.
The dingy claustrophobia of Soutra Gilmour’s set, together with sound and light from George Dennis and Jon Clark contrast with the humorously diegetic trappings of the first act. Together with Dyer and Freeman’s mastery of movement and voice, the pervading effect is one of stifling tension, unpunctured by the frequent moments of hilarity drawn out of the actors’ performances.
It is undoubtedly, a triumph. I have no doubt that Lloyd’s season will go down as the definitive staging of Pinter’s short plays and – and deservedly so.
I cannot help but think though, that it is something of an easy goal; to cast the best and most established actors in a set of plays by one of the most revered British playwrights. The cast lists of all seven instalments have been absolutely littered with the stars of the British stage and screen. On this, the press night of the final production, I am surrounded by what can only be described as a surreal array of famous faces. I literally cannot sneeze for Bafta-winners. Their eyes slide over me as though expecting me to be a somebody too. It strikes me that all these movers and shakers have turned out not only for tonight’s admittedly big cheeses onstage, but also in celebration of and tribute to Pinter himself, and to witness this great moment in British theatre.
The whole thing is really rather pleased with itself – but I suppose it has earned the right to be.
Pinter Seven is playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 23 February. For more information and tickets, visit the Pinter at the Pinter website.