Harold Pinter: the personal and political

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The recently renamed Harold Pinter Theatre opened its doors last month with a production of Old Times. Jack Farmer looks at the way political themes are revealed in the most personal of situations in Harold Pinter's plays

Fade up. A man and woman sit in a living room, smoking. Evening. The woman turns her head. "Dark", she says. "Fat or thin?" he asks. Who are they talking about? A second woman with dark hair stands half in shadow by a large window. Is she really in the room with them, or is she just a figment of memory?

This is the opening of Harold Pinter's Old Times, now playing at the newly renamed Harold Pinter Theatre. With simple staging and commanding performances from Kristen Scott-Thomas, Rufus Sewell and Lia Williams, this production is an elegant introduction to Pinter - a playwright whose work seems calculated to prove the slogan "The personal is political".

Old Times is haunted by Pinter's most consistent obsessions: memory, oppression and language as a survival strategy. Kate and Deeley, a married couple, are visited by Kate's old friend, Anna, who she hasn't seen for years. The conversation is sluggish at first, but soon they fill the silence with stories from their shared past: London concerts, love affairs, reading by the gas fire in their old flat. But are these stories true? Have they misremembered? Did Deeley and Anna really meet long ago?

In his 2005 speech accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature, Pinter described his writing process. He begins with an image, a word or a single line of dialogue. He proceeds like a private investigator, piecing together a puzzling situation. The characters begin as A, B, C. There is no pre-prepared backstory, no overbearing allegory or clever symbolism imposing itself on the drama. Information about the characters emerges from what they say and what they don't say.

This is not to say that Pinter's plays are without artifice or that they aren't carefully constructed - quite the reverse. But this approach - which was evidently compulsive for Pinter - creates plays in which meaning tends to be open.

Critics sometimes divide Pinter's career into three periods. His early plays were dubbed "comedies of menace"; his plays from the 1970s and 80s (including Old Times) are obsessed with memory while many of his later plays deal with more explicitly political themes.

While it's clear that there are clusters of plays that share similar concerns, these categories are reductive.

1950s British theatre was dominated by plays that provided neat resolutions to moral problems. Indeed, this was seen as the playwright's primary task, as is clear from critics' hostility to Pinter's early work. The appellation "comedy of menace" is an attempt to deal with plays that refuse the typical generic conventions of comedy and tragedy. This has a long history: some of Shakespeare's plays were dubbed "problem plays" for the same reason. One of these is Measure for Measure, a darkly comic tale of sexual exploitation and entrapment. At the end of that play the heroine, Isabella, is asked by the triumphant Duke Vincentio to marry her, a request that points towards a traditional comic ending. Shakespeare, never one to use a single line where ten would do, doesn't give her a response. Her silence is one of the most intriguing parts of the play, cementing its "problematic" character.

Silence is crucial in Pinter's plays (hence the famous "Pinter pause") and is an important ingredient in making his drama metaphorically open and difficult to categorise. When you hear the dialogue it seems inconsequential: people talking about the weather or what they've eaten. But keep listening, and you'll soon realise that what matters is that language is a strategy to build - and destroy - human relationships. We talk to keep ourselves going, to maintain human contact. Beneath the froth of conversation lies a deep well of psychological need and neurosis.

None of this should lead you to think that Pinter's plays are just verbal games. They are not absurdist works taking place in a meaningless moral universe. Instead, they are grounded in a certain kind of realism which takes as its starting point people reacting to oppression.

Pinter's first one-act play, The Room, is set in a boarding house in which a woman makes breakfast for her husband. She chatters away endlessly, while he remains eerily silent. There is a basement downstairs, but who or what is inside it? Other characters arrive; but are they a threat or do they offer salvation?

This kind of set-up is one Pinter would return to in plays like The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter: a room inhabited by people who feel trapped or oppressed. Marriage in particular warps people's relationships. Authority figures - representing the state or religion - offer solutions. But the stories they tell are unreliable and designed to ensnare the unwary. Memory offers an escape, but a dangerous one. Pinter's characters often live precariously in both the past and the present.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that Pinter later came to write plays that dealt explicitly with state torture, war and oppression, or that he used his Nobel Prize speech to attack the warmongering of the US. In a class-divided and often savage society the rattling of chains can be heard in everyday speech and in the silence that follows it.

If you listen carefully to a Pinter play, that's what you'll hear.