A Serving of Pinter (three shorts plays)

Nicholas Kavanagh and Frank Jackson in 'A Serving of Pinter' presented by Clinic Media and Moo Cow Theatre.

Nicholas Kavanagh and Frank Jackson in 'A Serving of Pinter' presented by Clinic Media and Moo Cow Theatre.

One of the most chilling moments in Harold Pinter’s One for the Road is when the almost silent, battered-looking prisoner realises that his wife and son are also being tortured. He looks up at his interrogator and says “kill me”. It comes across as a plea – one human being to another – to end the nightmarish suffering he is going through. One for the Road is the centre-piece of A Serving of Pinter, a co-production by Clinic Media and MooCow Theatre of three short Pinter plays. It serves as an uncomfortable reminder of how potent Pinter’s political plays continue to be in challenging their audience to look again, to think again, about the political systems and political actions they endorse, support or tolerate. As the revelations continue about “Special Rendition” (what twisted manufacturer of NewSpeak thought that one up?), about Gaddafi and his friendly relations with those who now denounce his evil regime, and the surreal terminology of torture (“extra-judicial prisoners”, “enhanced interrogation techniques”), Pinter’s play seems as pertinent and disturbing as when it was first produced over twenty-five years ago.

The strangest thing about A Serving of Pinter, perhaps is the assortment of pieces Eoin Ó hAnnracháin has chosen to place together. Perhaps it was the intention to reflect the writer’s journey from absurdist comedy to nightmarish visions of political oppression, but it makes for an odd and rather incoherent evening. In the opening piece, Trouble in the Works, a factory manager (Mr Fibbs, played by Nicholas Kavanagh like a John Cleese with a hernia) tries to deal with the outrage of workers who have taken a dislike to their products. This unfamiliar piece draws heavily on the English 1950s comic tradition which permits any unfamiliar word or phrase to become a double-entendre and its entertaining premise is that the workers have become alert to the double meanings of the objects they are producing and have developed a moral or aesthetic objection to them. Through their spokesman Mr Wills (played by Frank Jackson) they refuse to have anything further to do with “spherical rod-ends”, as it were. As played, it comes across as Benny Hill or Kenneth Horne rather than Monty Python (which is the connection the programme suggests). But it does underline Pinter’s very particular alertness to the strangeness of the English language, the odd conventions of English comedy and the particular repetitive music of English conversational sounds.

That same characteristic runs through the second piece, Victoria Station, in which a taxi-controller (Nicholas Kavanagh) vainly tries to coax a reluctant cab to pick up a passenger, only to become progressively enmeshed in the cabby’s slightly off-centre world. Once again, Pinter plays with double-meaning (the cabby is “cruising” near a darkened park), but this time he moves into his central territory: the inversion of power-relations, and the seductive nature of power itself.

A Serving of PinterThese two lightweight pieces sit uneasily beside the nightmarish One for the Road and do little to prepare us for the darkness and intensity of that work. As always with Pinter, the whisper is more threatening than the shout, the torturer’s apparent concern more frightening than his aggression. This is by far the most demanding piece and it was a wise choice to ditch the comedy English accents of the other two in favour of a more neutral register. For this reviewer, although the victims (Gila and Victor, played by Ruth Hayes and Nicholas Kavanagh) were movingly stunned and pathetic, the key performance (Nicolas, the interrogator, played by Frank Jackson) lacked subtlety and depth. As directed, his rapid movements around the stage, repeated downing of large gulps of whiskey and tendency to play towards the audience robbed his character of the appropriate focus, power and menace. With Pinter’s really dark figures, the disturbing edge is in the way threat is wrapped inside a display of charm, emotional engagement and sweet reason. Here the aggression was played so much on the surface that the seductive power and threat of the interrogator was dissipated. Even the choreography and the positioning of the furnishings seemed to conspire to reduce the power and force of the character.

Some other choices by director Eoin Ó hAnnracháin also seemed a little baffling: using a stripped-out stage with the theatre’s back wall acting as the frame for all the pieces seemed smart in one way but sat oddly with the rather fussy and old-fashioned use of side-flats and furniture. While the lighting was sharp and decisive, sound and sound-design seemed somewhat underused as an instrument for generating contrasting atmospheres. (The exception to this was the wonderfully spooky sound of the offstage cabbie – played by Frank Jackson – in Victoria Station.)

For actors Pinter represents a huge challenge. His dramatic dialogue picks up and plays with the very particular tunes, textures and repetitive tropes of English speech to make the banal and familiar seem comic or strange or disconcerting. In order to try to capture this, most productions play Pinter in English accents, but with non-English actors, precision of inflection and region is always a challenge. In this case, it may be that the extreme tonal contrasts between the pieces chosen made stylistic coherence impossible but it still seemed like a lost opportunity not to have explored how Pinter might be played with Irish voices, or to investigate the resonances that might create. Nevertheless, a curious and occasionally very disturbing evening.

Ger FitzGibbon is the former head of Drama & Theatre Studies at UCC.

  • Review
  • Theatre

A Serving of Pinter (three shorts plays) by Harold Pinter

27 Sept – Oct 1, 2011

Produced by Clinic Media and MooCow Theatre
In Half Moon Theatre, Cork

Trouble in the Works
Victoria Station
One for the Road

Directed by Eoin Ó hAnnracháin

Costume Design: Deirdre Dwyer

Lighting Design: Aoife Cahill

Sound Design: Joe Harney

With: Nicholas Kavanagh, Frank Jackson, Ruth Hayes, Tadgh O’Connell.


A Taste of Pinter also plays at Forum Theatre, Waterford on 7 and 8 October, 2011 and returns to the Half Moon for two more performances on 25 and 26 October, 2011