An Evening of Short Plays by Harold Pinter
Review by Sean McQuaid
Your outsize appraiser fancies undersize drama. That's one of the things I like about the late Harold Pinter, author of so many short plays and sketches. These include Silence (1969), Press Conference (2002) and One for the Road (1984), all staged by Winston Smith Theatre at the Guild as a Pinter triple feature in October.
Of course, brevity isn't Pinter's only selling point. His work is dark, funny, oddly enigmatic—showing more than telling, often hinting more than showing. Pinter tends to make his audience work at figuring out who's who and what the heck is going on.
In fact, Pinter's shadowy weirdness—such as oft-ominous "comedy of menace" featuring dark humour with intimations of darker doings just out of view—arguably works best in short form. One recalls Twilight Zone scripters, referencing that great show's less successful double-length incarnation, discussing how hard it is to sustain bizarre, intense stories for long without diluting their punch. Similarly, Pinter's better shorts get into your head and get out before you quite know what's hit you.
Winston Smith Theatre (presumably named for the character from George Orwell's anti-authoritarian novel 1984) had billed its Pinter triple feature as a political statement timed to coincide with the recent federal election, and parallels between the two aren't hard to find.
Contrary to popular rhetoric in some quarters, the newly defeated Prime Minister Stephen Harper was never literally a dictator, nor did his regime ever commit any crimes even remotely equivalent to those of Pinter's brutally corrupt authorities in One for the Road and Press Conference.
That being said, Harper ran an often ugly government by Canadian standards, and its darker instincts aped elements of Pinter's rogue regimes: secretive, controlling, intrusive, arbitrary, paranoid, vindictive, hypocritical, sanctimonious, vainglorious, openly contemptuous of dissent, and above all saturated with a never-ending stream of propaganda that drenched almost everything Harper's government ever said or did in oceans of Orwellian double talk.
Perhaps most tellingly, Harper's exploitation of the niqab issue and other cynically manufactured cultural controversies during his final campaign evoked the words of Pinter's corrupt official Nicolas in One for the Road, who makes the political pitch that "we all share a common heritage" as if that trumps everything else. For these and other reasons, the Winston Smith gang's pairing of their Pinter showcase with the election feels timely and apt.
The least political play in this triple bill, enigmatic oddity Silence, is a disjointed meditation on memory and relationships as voiced by Ellen (Melissa Kramer) and her two suitors Rumsey (Lennie MacPherson) and Bates (Donnie MacPhee). Kramer's pretty perfect in this, drifting dreamily through the short's shifting times, places and emotions. MacPhee is effective as her rougher love interest Bates while MacPherson offers definite contrast as the meeker Rumsey, but is so quiet and understated as to flirt with inaudibility or indifference by times, less compelling than the rest of this triangle.
The show's director Adam Brazier is perfect as the Minister in Press Conference, cheerfully performing a grotesque variation on political spin in which the usual sort of sunnily sanitized, self-serving political rhetoric is applied to more overtly horrific subject matter than usual.
But the triple bill saves its best for last with One for the Road, starring the show's producer Jody Racicot as Nicolas and Donnie MacPhee, Katie Kerr and Noah MacKinnon as a dissident family held in his abusive custody. All four actors are good, but Racicot shines brightest with his quicksilver shifts in tone, style and mood—alternately genial, vicious, quiet, loud, laconic or violent depending on the moment, but always menacing and compelling throughout.
Racicot's sinister star turn caps off the night in bravura style, though it also intensifies one's feeling come the final curtain that it all ends too soon. These three plays only fill about an hour in total, making this particular Pinter showcase more of a tasty snack than a full theatrical meal.