It feels strange yet curiously inevitable to be typing “the Harold Pinter Theatre“.
This is the playhouse formerly known as the Comedy which has lost a name with a dainty spring in its step and been lumbered instead with something distinctly flat-footed. Why couldn’t it have followed the Novello or Gielgud and just taken Mr Pinter’s surname?
We seem to be going down the New York route where full monikers are the norm; great clunking names which keep the neon sign manufacturers’ businesses going: on The Broadway one can partake of entertainment at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre,the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre and Samuel J. Friedman Theatres to name but nine.
Ah well, at least we don’t have anything like the American Airlines or Foxwoods Theatres (the latter named after a casino) but it is surely only a matter of time. The Dorfman Theatre cometh (nothing to do with the author of the play we will be speaking of).
As a name the Pinter Theatre has a ring, or at least a slight tinkle, though the Whingers haven’t decided how they’ll reference it yet. The Harold Comedy (after Tom Stoppard’s supposed witty jibe)? Or perhaps just the Harry or ‘arry? Maybe the H.P. offers a saucier tone?
The Whingers were unable to resist being part of one of the smaller footnotes in theatrical history by patronising the renamed theatre’s inaugural show: Death and the Maiden which is played straight through in 100 minutes. Now, much as the Whingers embrace plays which run without interval it seems strangely inappropriate to open the Harold Pinter with a show that doesn’t stop midway to take a long pause.
But then again this revival comes from the pen of the Argentinian born Chilean novelist, playwright, essayist, academic, human rights activist and friend of Pinter, Ariel Dorfman. You can imagine those two having plenty to chew on over their tea and HobNobs without even having to touch on the latest Test cricket match scores.
It’s a thriller, of sorts, set in an unnamed Latin American country (Andrew thought it was in Italy for some reason) shortly after a long dictatorship has ended and democracy has finally been achieved. Paulina (Thandie Newton) is an ex-political prisoner who lives with her human-rights lawyer hubby Gerardo (Tom Goodman-Hill) in a conveniently Agatha Christie-ish remote coastal house (although sadly no wood panelling or wall-mounted animal heads).
Gerardo gets a flat tyre and arrives home courtesy of a lift with one Dr Miranda (Anthony Calf, not Anthony Head, who Andrew had been expecting). Paulina, convinced she recognises his voice as one of the people responsible for torturing and violently abusing her, turns the tables on him. This involves knocking him out in the middle of the night, tying him up and putting him on “trial” to elicite a confession. We must assume she never suffered from Stockholm syndrome.
But her kidnap happened years ago and as she was blindfolded she never saw her captor. Has she got the right man? Is her husband sympathetic? Should he aid and abet his wife? Will her actions ruin his political aspirations? Or is Paulina a few empanadas short of a picnic?
So far so contrived, yet potentially interesting. Well that’s what you’d think. Phil remembers being gripped by the original 1991 Royal Court production (which won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play), with its ambiguities and the irony of those who adopt the tactics of those they have overthrown. But not here.
The star attraction, the rather comely Newton is making her stage début and one cannot expect her to have the experience of a Juliet Stevenson (who officially created the role). Also it was a preview. Let’s just leave it there.
Poor Mr Calf somehow emerges with his dignity intact despite being debagged, tied to a chair and subjected to all sorts of indignities including having Newton’s panties shoved into his mouth (dirty mac brigade need not apply – she switches them; there is no Cool Hand Luke sleight of hand).
The lengthy scene where Paulina attacks Miranda with much sheet-tearing to provide the necessary bondage sees her struggle to get him onto and tie him to a chair is probably realistic, given the difference in their size and weight. Yet we almost leapt on stage to lend a hand.
The political dialogue now seems clunkily overdone and dated. There is little, at this stage, to exert the vice-like grip the play can achieve.
Only in its final moments when, for a scenic change, the auditorium of the Harry is neatly reflected by the set’s sliding screens does DATM garner anything like the atmosphere director Jeremy Herrin presumably intends.
Indeed, rather than ratcheting up tension, it all feels a tad worthy. Harry worthy perhaps?