Pinter x 4
Barry O'Connor and Janice Byrne in Noteworthy
Pearse Centre, Dublin **“You know what language means to you,” one speaker tells another in Harold Pinter’s The New World Order. We hear very similar phrases throughout all four of the writer’s short plays staged together by AC Productions. “One has to be so scrupulous about language,” says Nicholas, a man who is otherwise entirely without scruples, to his political detainee. “Your language is dead . . . it is forbidden to speak it,” say the soldiers behind an ethnic purge. Language, in Pinter’s typically opaque glimpses of totalitarian oppression, means one thing: the ability to confuse, coerce and control.
In Pinter’s writing, the context for each play is deliberately ambiguous, as though the audience should be as disorientated as the victims onstage. Director Peter Reid is in search of something more concrete, though, piecing the plays together as one cohesive narrative. That decision gives this promenade production some flow, leading the audience from scenes of implied and depicted violence through the Pearse Centre, but other embellishments are extremely literal, curbing much of the plays’ power.
The unspecified abusers in New World Order are now beret-wearing soldiers, and their victim doesn’t sit, he stands above them on a chair like an Abu Ghraib inmate, pleading, spitting in defiance and finally crumpling. Following Paul Kealyn’s menacingly absurd interrogations in a sparing version of One For The Road, the most successfully realised piece, he can still be seen peering down from a window at the courtyard where Mountain Language’s rural women are briefly united with their tortured menfolk.
That suggests a desire for conspicuous villains, and when Kealyn’s Nicholas returns as the orchestrator of an atrocity in Precisely, the narrative coherence becomes too neat, while a lamenting final chorus of the noble downtrodden (“And on it goes . . . ”) makes political points all the more blunt. These menacing little plays with their economy of stagecraft endear themselves to companies of modest means, but as ambiguous as Pinter makes the circumstances, the message is wearisomely unequivocal: oppression is a bad thing.
If Pinter had taken huge risks to deliver that simple message, as Solzhenitsyn or Havel did under genuinely repressive regimes, they may resonate stronger today, and if AC Productions staged his work in secret under the threat of arrest, as Free Theatre Belarus recently did, such broad treatments might have real impact. Instead, this feels like an exercise in anguished handwringing substituting for something with real political purpose.