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Features Essays Published 5 September 2011

Pinter’s Political Anger

Director Jeff James’s credits include Swan Song, as part of the Devils Festival at The Print Room, and one of last year's 24 Hour Plays at the Old Vic. He has worked as an assistant director with the RSC, Shakespeare’s Globe, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Trafalgar Studios. He recently assisted on The Print Room’s acclaimed production of Fabrication. He discusses Pinter's 1984 play One for the Road as he prepares to direct it in a double-bill with Victoria Station at the Print Room and The Young Vic.
Jeff James

Right now, half way through rehearsals for One for the Road and Victoria Station, I’m glad to have the bank holiday weekend to briefly escape from the darker aspects of Pinterworld. One for the Road is a coolly terrifying play, in which we see the protagonist Nicolas interrogate three members of the same family. We’re clearly in some sort of police state, but the country goes unnamed. The play vividly shows the evil of torture, and is considered by some to have marked a change in Pinter’s works, moving into more straightforwardly political territory.

Harold Pinter wrote One for the Road immediately after going to a family party. He met two young Turkish women whom he found attractive and intelligent. As was apparently his style, he challenged the women over their country’s use of torture. They remained unfazed, and assured him that it was probably only communists who were treated in this way, so it didn’t matter. Pinter’s widow Antonia Fraser says that writing One for the Road was his alternative to strangling these women. He went home and wrote the play overnight. One for the Road is an angry cry against the evil of torture, documenting what happens when human bodies are hurt in reaction to political dissidence. Pinter forces the audience to look at torture, and challenges them to dismiss it as something irrelevant that only happens to other people.

It’s striking that this anger is as appropriate now as it was when Pinter wrote the play in 1984. As we approach the ten-year anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington DC, we can note how 9/11 changed the Anglo-American orthodoxy of torture. The perceived new realities of the War on Terror led to what was effectively a legalisation of torture within US army structures. We can hear an echo of Pinter’s Turkish friends in US Justice Department lawyer Jay Bybee’s now infamous memo claiming that ‘certain acts may be cruel, inhumane or degrading, but still not produce pain and suffering of the requisite intensity to fall within Section 2340A’s proscription against torture’. Clearly, we should still be angry.

The production in rehearsal. Photo: Sheila Burnett

Working on a play born out of anger makes me think about what response I want from the audience. Do I want to make them angry? Well, maybe sometimes. Last week, some of the cast visited the London base of Freedom from Torture, a brilliant charity that works with survivors of torture. My actors met people working there, and a man who had been tortured in Chad. This experience made them angry and upset and when they came back into rehearsal they asked whether we could collect money for the charity after performances.

This seems a reasonable request, but I have resisted it, as I think it would reduce what One for the Road is as a work of art. The point of the play, I think, is not to persuade the audience to become engaged with a political debate, or to give money to a charity. Both those things are highly laudable (and go to freedomfromtorture.org if you do want to support them), but the play is an end to itself. Like many plays, it offers a more intense experience than real life and it pushes us into a different thought space. It would be great if the play challenges the people who watch it, but if it doesn’t make them angry or more politically engaged, that’s fine.

It’s fine because I disagree with those who see Pinter’s later plays as being more politically engaged. One for the Road is about power, just like his early play The Birthday Party is. In both plays, there is a moment when someone is made to sit down by someone else. It’s a little thing, but in each case Pinter invests it with terrible meaning. Yes, One for the Road is about torture, but it also uses torture as a lens to look at how we make other people do things, and how small pockets of violence are curled up in apparently innocent words. It transcends the setting of an interrogation room, just as much as The Birthday Party transcends Meg and Petey’s boarding house. At the end of The Birthday Party, Petey shouts ‘Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!’ In his strongest dissections of power, Pinter resists telling his audiences what to do.

One for the Road/Victoria Station plays at The Print Room from September 13th-October 1st and at The Young Vic from October 6th-15th 2011.

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