Harold Pinter - playwright, director, actor, worthy winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature, who died in 2008, was also a political animal. Pinter’s work became more obviously politicised in the 1980’s, his short plays in particular critiquing oppression, torture and other abuses of human rights.
In the years before his death he memorably called Tony Blair a ‘deluded idiot’ over his part in the Iraq war and warned that America, ‘was charging towards world domination’.
His Nobel Lecture, oddly overlooked and ignored by the BBC, outraged some Americans and those on the right, as he presciently spoke of politicians who favour power over truth, requiring the populace to live in ignorance, surrounded by ‘a vast tapestry of lies’ on which to feed.
Only this week the Trump administration has introduced the notion of ‘alternative facts’ and the president himself has openly endorsed the use of torture, and on the same day that Russia has decriminalised those acts of domestic violence that don’t lead to hospitalisation.
A Reliable Mirage, combining three of Pinter’s short, political plays, could not be more timely.
At the beginning of the first play, Precisely, a rhythmic ticking sound is heard receding into the background. Two men sit across a table, sharing a bottle and discussing figures. They debate numbers of 20 million, 30, even 70. It slowly becomes clear that these men are not discussing money, but the numbers of potential victims in a given nuclear war.
The Pinter pause is used with chilling effect here as great blocks of silence generate an increasingly uncomfortable hidden menace. As the men dispassionately continue, the white light slowly fades and a red light begins to dominate until only the bottle can be seen, glowing red in the dark.
This segues into Mountain Language. A piece that Pinter himself described as, ‘brutal, short and ugly’, it examines the use and abuse of power over others.
Here is a country on the verge of genocide, whose language is now forbidden, whose men are incarcerated, tortured and executed, whose elderly women are beaten for not speaking the new language that they know nothing of. With casual references to the sexual abuse of women (one of the most enduring weapons of war) and savage dogs raging in the background, the barbarity of state-enforced oppression, here with a sinister, unrelenting smile on its face, is stark and chilling.
Before the final scene of Mountain Language, the ten minute New World Order is slotted in (you would have to be familiar with the two plays to notice this as they segue in and out of each other seamlessly). We watch as two men circle another who has been stripped, tied to a chair and has a bloodied hood over his head. The two are never specific about exactly what they are going to do to him, his wife, his child and so the tension is built and the imagination unwillingly and unwittingly breaks free. What we do learn is that this man has and will be tortured for questioning received ideas and that the two in charge feel ‘pure’ as they are making the world safe, cleansing it for democracy.
The pared-back, simple and straightforward direction of these shorts has maximum impact. With no set to speak of in the tiny space, the claustrophobic, intense atmosphere is created through imaginative lighting and powerful, painfully understated performances.
This production is unnerving, presenting a disturbing milieu that feels dangerously close. As the man himself once said, ‘democracy is a fragile thing’. Indeed.
Runs 27th – 29th January