The Theatre of Not Listening: Pinter Three and Pinter Four at the Pinter Theatre

Anthony Walker-Cook reviews the third and fourth instalments in the Pinter at the Pinter series, considering the key messages we can learn from seeing these thirteen individual pieces of Pinter’s work.

Remember going to Woolworths to the pick-and-mix section and choosing a little bit of everything? For me, it was always jelly raspberries and blackberries, some white chocolate mice, those little white chocolate disks with hundreds and thousands on top, and some jelly worms. Ok, so maybe not a little bit of everything, but what emerged, regardless of your selection, was a representation of your favourite tastes and textures. Seeing Pinter Three and Pinter Four, the next instalments in the Pinter at the Pinter series, the feeling of watching a variety of one dramatist’s work is uncommon but entirely enjoyable. Other than Shakespeare, it’s rare to be able to go and feel spoilt by the amount of one person’s work on offer at once, to get a flavour (sweet or not) of a writer’s career. Whilst the Pinter Theatre itself may be slightly cramped, the imaginative openness that comes with Pinter at the Pinter is indeed like being at a pick-and-mix section once again, though jelly sweets and white chocolate have been replaced by noticeably less saccharine choices for emotional and personal depth.

Tamsin Greig in ‘landscape’ in Pinter Three. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Brought to audiences by the Jamie Lloyd Company, Pinter at the Pinter celebrates the dramatist’s work by staging all twenty of his one-act plays. Across seven instalments, the season has attracted some of the most respected theatre actors and directors to remember Pinter’s work ten years after his death. Pinter Three is no exception to this rule, with Tamsin Greig and Lee Evans (recently out of retirement) headlining this selection of eleven short pieces with Keith Allen, Meera Syal and Tom Edden. Pinter delights in the ambiguities between cruelty and laughter, which is represented from the first piece, ‘landscape’. Performed by Allen and Grieg, this is a couple who talk at each other but not with each other, their individual strands of memory remaining on parallel lines with the only link being unfulfilled love.

Lee Evans in ‘monologue’ in Pinter Three. Photograph: Marc Brenner

‘landscape’ establishes the overarching theme of Pinter Three: listening. Throughout the eleven pieces characters are always failing to listen to one another. In ‘apart from that’ and ‘night’ Syal hears an off-stage dripping tap and a baby crying. Allen’s ‘yes’ to Evans’ points of faux social critique in ‘that’s all’ are tart, and how any of the actors keep a straight face with Edden’s gormless presence is amazing. The final piece, ‘a kind of alaska’, in which Greig awakens from a twenty-nine year sleep and finds her world completely changed is full of wonderful lines focusing on the aural, which are exceptionally delivered. ‘I sound childish, out of tune’, she observes at one point. The standout piece, however, in Pinter Three is ‘monologue’, in which Evans is alone on stage. As an elegiac piece, Pinter refocuses our attention on listening once more, offering now a solitary figure speaking to an empty space, a scenario suggested in ‘landscape’ but here in its simplicity and Evans’s heartfelt performance we learn the true importance of listening and that we must do so before it is too late to respond.

Bríd Brennan and Robert Glenister in ‘moonlight’. Photograph: Marc Brenner

If Pinter Three teaches us the importance of listening, then the two pieces of Pinter Four – ‘moonlight’ and ‘night school’ – realise the importance of the past. ‘How I loved you’ Robert Glenister says to his wife, Bel, played by Bríd Brennan at the beginning of ‘moonlight’. Directed by Lyndsey Turner, the independent impulse of ‘moonlight’, narratologically crooked though it might be, is a welcome change to the flightiness of Pinter Three. Glenister’s Andy is dying and his sons – played by Al Weaver and Dwane Walcott – have not visited. Furthermore, it is not the state of married bliss we might hope, with Bel and Andy coyly suggesting they should have married Ralph (Peter Polycarpou) and Maria (Janie Dee) respectively. Andy and Bel didn’t listen to each other, their sons don’t listen to their father, and no one listened to Ralph when he was an amateur referee. Now, as Andy meets his end, the implied sense of epic scale familiar from stories of patriarchal demise (think King Lear or Exit the King for recent examples) is hemmed in by Soutra Gilmour’s design: a room enclosed on all sides by walls.

Imagine, then, the surprise when as the curtain lifts for ‘night school’ that instead all that stands is a metal frame with a drum kit in the middle. As Abbie Finn and Jessica Barden come on stage, the following’s frantic drumming with the latter’s manic dancing is a sharp contrast to the quieter ‘moonlight’. For this final piece, Walter (Weaver) comes back from doing time in prison to find his aunties (Brennan and Dee) have rented his old room to Sally (Barden), who has proceeded to redecorate the space in between being a primary school teacher and, we think, going to night-school. ‘It’s a pleasure to smell her’, Dee explains as we are told of Sally’s near-meticulous routine, yet Walter’s quest to find the woman in an old photograph disrupts this arrangement.

Jessica Barden and Janie Dee in ‘night school’. Photograph: Marc Brenner

As Sally, Barden is aloof and enticing, often watching the scenes develop by standing on a ladder backstage. When Walter and Sally share a drink in her (or his) room, Dee and Brennan listen in, their comic timing and ridiculousness a reminder after ‘moonlight’ of Pinter’s comic confusion realised wonderfully throughout Pinter Three. Yet, their inane chat of whether hot or cold milk has been used when preparing the evening hot beverage revels in the confusion of Pinter’s mazes of language, making it difficult for even the audience to be able to listen and comprehend what is being suggested. Directed by Ed Stambollouian, ‘night school’ woefully brings all the attributes of both Pinter Three and Pinter Four together through the glorious performances of all on stage.           

For this conclusion, as one dramatist once said, lend me your ears. Pinter at the Pinter is a superb opportunity to understand the resonances and echoes of one man’s career. The fascinations revealed through the snapshots of Pinter Three are taken up in Pinter Four and given a new impetus. The casts of both parts are a testimony to Pinter’s position within the development of British drama, and what emerges is a writer concerned with the present through the past. We learn from Pinter that it is not that we must listen, but that we should have listened and that we should not (unlike a pick-and-mix) pick and choose what information we care to listen to. ‘The past is a mist’, Andy exclaims in ‘moonlight’, but if we engage in conversation a guiding light may yet appear.

Pinter Three – 4/5
Pinter Four – 4/5

Pinter Three and Pinter Four are at the Pinter Theatre until the 8thDecember, 2019.

Feature photograph: Marc Brenner

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL and is the Theatre editor for London Student. His interests include theatre adaptation, early modern drama, classical myths made modern and all things eighteenth century. For more information please contact: @AntWalker_Cook

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