(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/30/01.)
Pinter’s political plays tell the world things it would prefer to forget about the prevalence of torture and tyranny. Michael Billington meets him as he prepares to play a sadistic interrogator in One For the Road
What exactly is political theatre? It can be a means of debating public issues, as in the case of David Hare and David Edgar. It can be a source of information, as with the Tricycle’s docudramas including, unforgettably, The Colour of Justice. But it can also, as Harold Pinter has shown, be a means of creating resonant images of suffering; of checking our tendency, in Pinter’s phrase, “to shovel the shit under the carpet” when it comes to the abuse of human rights.
Pinter’s political plays are enjoying a sudden revival. Mountain Language and Ashes to Ashes are showing at the Royal Court. Pinter is at the New Ambassadors next week playing Nicolas, a brutal government interrogator, in One For the Road. All three shows then head for New York’s Lincoln Center as part of a two-week Pinter festival, one that includes the Dublin Gate’s productions of The Homecoming, Landscape, and A Kind of Alaska, Pinter’s own Almeida versions of Celebration and The Room, and a rare revival of Monologue.
When you consider that in October Pinter will direct No Man’s Land at the National with Corin Redgrave and John Wood, that he’s written a film version of King Lear, which Tim Roth hopes to direct, is the subject of a BBC Arena profile and next spring picks up the European Theatre Prize in Taormina, it’s clear that, at 70, he’s not exactly subsiding into slippered serenity.
But, despite the punishing schedule, when I meet Pinter for an early evening tipple in his Holland Park study, he seems perfectly relaxed. Only the well-thumbed copy of One For the Road on his drinks table reveals the actor still anxiously getting to grips with his lines: Pinter wryly admits that just because he wrote them, it doesn’t mean he automatically knows them. But although this 1984 play about interrogation and torture is produced worldwide, doesn’t it pose an aesthetic problem? If we accept from the outset that torture is evil, doesn’t that kill the dramatic tension?
“I agree,” says Pinter, “it’s often difficult to make political drama dramatic. I believe that Nicolas in One For the Road should be, as it were, hung, drawn and quartered. Equally, the system of linguistic censorship I’m writing about in Mountain Language is an act of palpable oppression. I can’t find a way of apologising for either the man or the system. I can only hope to describe what happens accurately. But where Mountain Language is a series of brutal images, One For the Road is, I think, more complex. When I get up on that stage, I won’t be acting a monster, although he is certainly monstrous – but a man. Nicolas is a desperate man who seeks validation from his male victim, talks about his love of God, country and nature, and is always trying to find a philosophical basis for his actions.
Photo: Blouin Artinfo