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Brief Encounter With ... Director Jeff James on Pinter & Politics

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Harold Pinter is having a good month. The week after London's Comedy Theatre was renamed in the late playwright's honour, a new double bill of his later short plays opens at The Print Room in Notting Hill.

One for the Road and Victoria Station were first performed together at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1984, marking the start of Pinter's overtly political period. Director Jeff James explains why the time is right for their revival.

When did you first come across these two Pinter plays?
I must have read them first when I directed Betrayal at university. I was 19 and had a summer job in an office but was using it mostly to read under my desk. I came back to One for the Road last year via Simon Gray's diaries. Gray wrote of the difficulty of the press night, that everyone wanted to go up to Pinter and say 'Well done' but they couldn’t because the play was so upsetting. Victoria Station was originally done earlier at the Cottesloe but it was also performed with One for the Road that night.

One for the Road is about torture but Pinter gives few clues as to where that torture is taking place.
No, but I’ve actually chosen a fictional time period and location to set it in. The problem with Pinter, with these plays, is that they're very ambiguous. Very resonant also, but an actor can’t play an ambiguity. An actor needs to know what the real world of the play is, I think. So that was hard, working out what state they're in. I decided not to make it Pinochet’s Chile, for example, though I could have done. That felt too familiar.

How did you and actor Kevin Doyle approach the character of Nicolas, the interrogator?
At the auditions, Kevin and I discussed that it would be a mistake to think of Nicolas as simply evil and dismiss him. We have to understand what he does in human terms. I’ve taken the line that he is exceptionally good at what he does. But you never know if he is real on the religious stuff. He talks about keeping his country clean for god. Is that for real? Rehearsing it, you realise Nicolas is pretending in some way. And so the actor playing him is pretending to pretend.

Have rehearsals been heavy going given the subject matter?
As soon as Kevin and Anna, who plays the female character Gila, finish a scene, they do a kind of silly dance together – the scene’s so horrible they need to instantly release that. And the child actors, we talk a lot about what is helpful or appropriate for them to see or know. I talked to them about it being a police station – that seems like language they can understand. But whenever we try and put things into cosy, comfortable language, they know we're up to something. Children are happier with these things than you think they are going to be.

There is a surprising amount of humour in these plays, isn't there?
I’m interested to see if people do laugh. Once you’ve been working on them for four weeks, you find even the most horrible lines funny. I think Victoria Station is very funny. In One for the Road, it's more complicated. All the humour comes from Nicolas and we know a game is being played with the person being tortured. So maybe you find yourself laughing and then you pull back, when you know you’re complicit.

As further evidence of British complicity in torture emerges, have the plays become more pertinent?
Torture is an appalling thing that happens. I think people know that and don’t need a play to prove it. But Pinter does open up what the relationship is between torture and other aspects of our lives that we might not think were connected. It’s interesting these plays are relevant. The terrifying thing is that they are always relevant. At the time, Pinter was responding to things going on in Turkey. Now we're a decade after 9/11 and in the last ten years, we’ve had this move towards the legalisation of torture in Anglo-American culture.

Pinter said he didn't want to preach or sermonize...
Not in his plays anyway!

But we know he was outspoken elsewhere. Does his political prose shine a light on these plays?
I’m really glad that Pinter was outspoken. It’s important to have a writer of that standing saying those things. But I think they are two quite separate things. He was very angry when he wrote these plays but if a play is obvious in its message or pushing something towards you, it doesn’t really work. It's two people in a room that’s exciting in One for the Road, not the political message.

-Jeff James was speaking to Nancy Groves


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