Feb 16, 2008

Being Harold Pinter at the Soho Theatre

For CultureWars.org.uk

In the run up to this production all the attention has been focussed on its context rather than its content. Here is a company banned in their own country, frequently imprisoned, performing shows in front rooms and secret locations; uniting political dissidents and private citizens in their opposition to an oppressive political regime. And there is, as you might imagine, a cathartic sense of anguish to Being Harold Pinter. This is a show bristling with images of frustration, anger and despair – a lone figure scrambling desperately under a suffocating tarpaulin, a broken old man huddled on the floor, screaming in impotent fury.

Yet while they may be very much a consequence of particular (depressingly omnipresent) political circumstances, the company never limit themselves to narrow agitprop declarations. Rather the show seems very much the consequence of an entire century of anguished false starts and flawed reconstructions; the political theatre of a continent almost irreparably scarred. Rather than demand any trite political transformations the piece reaches for a larger universality, stitching together the entire career of Harold Pinter, the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and Belarus' own contemporary trauma.

This scope is apparent in the careful, intelligent way that Pinter’s work is used, borrowing slithers of dialogue from a variety of plays, early pieces like The Homecoming through to more explicitly political shows such as Mountain Language, a one-act written in the late 80s. What is conjured is a fascinating through line highlighting the relationship between the bullying and brutality we experience every day and the political atrocities that we normally see only on the news or in films.

The company telescope these disparate threads together through a visceral, powerful physicality. Speaking (often shouting) in a foreign language, the company are brilliantly adept at creating big, hauntingly powerful images out of meagre materials; an apple crushed to pieces under a boot, accusing torch beams peering out at the audience and a single burning paper aeroplane floating across the blackness. This violent imagery is used to telescope these scenes of domestic and political atrocity into a single horror in a manner reminiscent of Fassbinder’s brutal Pre-Paradise Sorry Now with its juxtaposition of the Moors murderers and the petty fascisms of everyday life. Indeed, in one particularly memorable image an enraged lover screams out at the audience, his arm shooting up in a Nazi salute so sickeningly familiar from the footage of Hitler at his Nuremburg Rallies. Thus the show powerfully suggest that we are never far from censor or oppression, whether it be personal or political.

In response to this omnipresent danger the show, through Pinter’s words, demands renewed rigour in what we say and how we say it. A quest for an unreachable truth. A theatre that rises to challenging of balancing political activism with theatrical subjectivity. With particular reference to their own society the company seem to demand not merely a change of leadership but a change of mentality. They demand a society constantly questioning its own truths and its own principals. A society that embraces dissent and celebrates political rigour. At the end of the show the closing lines of Pinter’s speech echo in our ears:

I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

Yet in the audience’s fulsome response to this cri de coeur I felt an unsettling air of self-congratulation at merely being present at this event; the company lauded almost as a prized curiosity. Which is a shame because beyond the deafening focus on their sad yet valiant circumstances, the company have created a show that says as much about their audience as it does about their political overlords. It is a show that doesn’t discriminate between private and public cruelty, between being actively involved in something and passively allowing it to happen.

Consequently it seems to point a scathing finger at the invisible atrocities in faraway (and not so faraway) places that we are tacitly implicated in merely be deign of doing nothing, while our freedoms are slowly stripped away one by one. As both Pinter and the Belarus Free Theatre assert, simply going to the theatre and clapping vigorously is never going to be enough to instigate the kind of transformation both our countries require.

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