Infidelity is at the core of these two short Pinter plays, performed as part of the Pinter at the Pinter season from the Jamie Lloyd Company. Both The Lover and The Collection were written in the early 60s and contain plenty of the ambiguity to be expected of Pinter’s work – they are both deliciously clever plays, even if their politics now feel old fashioned.
The Lover is, arguably, the more interesting of the two. It is rife with power struggles: man and woman, love and sex, marriage and infidelity. Pinter plays with the ambiguous roles of the central couple to explore dark sexual fantasies in marriage. Both openly admit to the other that they are unfaithful and appear to have a happy yet fragile agreement – the twist, though, is that they’re also role-playing as both the lover and the whore. It’s only by taking on this role that they can be truly honest with each other about their sexual fantasies. Whether this strengthens or hinders their relationship is open to interpretation, Pinter voyeuristically peering beyond the window blinds of domesticity to question our own desires.
It’s Pinter’s treatment of the wife character, though, that raises concerns. As a wife, she is laden with her husband’s perceived wifely duties, left at home while he goes to work and expected to put a meal on the table when he arrives back. As the whore, she is little more than a sexual function for men’s desire – by contrast, the male lover is more gentle and sensual. It’s debatable whether the play is a comment on men’s anxiety of what exactly their wives get up to at home, or if it’s just a misogynistic expectation of female behaviour.
Jamie Lloyd’s direction is stylised and heightened, perhaps to make the political views a little more palatable for a modern audience. Taking place in a bright pink box, actors John MacMillan and Hayley Squires speak Pinter’s double entendres with high-pitched voices and almost robotic movement in typical 60s Stepford Wife fashion. It ensures the whole performance has a heavily ironic tone and Pinter’s idiosyncratic writing draws plenty of laughs, even as we feel aroused and uncomfortable in equal measure.
The Collection, by contrast, is initially more straightforward, though it has its parallels with the former play. It revolves around two couples and an accusation of infidelity, as one man (James) visits the home of another (Bill) to accuse him of sleeping with his wife; over time, though, the story of events is altered until the line between truth and fantasy are blurred. And although the story pivots around her, Squires says very little as the wife and is, quite literally, kept in the background for much of the action. Lloyd does, cunningly, give her the last word though.
Lloyd also plays up the homoeroticism of the play. As Bill, Russell Tovey attempts to seduce his accuser, on his knees begging for forgiveness in a rather compromising position, and for a time MacMillan’s James seems to be complicit, as if the story is hurtling in an entirely unexpected direction. David Suchet utterly dominates, though, as the eccentric Harry, able to make even the most mundane of Pinter’s lines into a comic triumph. The design – all dark leathers and shadows – turns the narrative into a seedy noir thriller that’s perhaps a little problematic in its depiction of seemingly predatory homosexuals, but remains a gripping watch all the same.
Revivals can bring issues and this duo of short plays, for all their Pinter flair, remain politically old-fashioned. Lloyd’s direction can’t change that, but his stylised production creates a certain distance that allows us to interrogate two rarely performed Pinter works with fresh eyes.
Pinter at the Pinter runs until 23 February 2019. Click here for more details.