Being Harold Pinter
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
January 6, 2011
Of Being Harold Pinter, a spectacularly powerful theatre piece by the Belarus Free Theatre, Pinter himself remarked “I felt proud of what I’d written.” The 75-minute piece is a startling, unsettling commentary on the power struggles which exist amongst Pinter’s characters in comparison to the inherent powerlessness of the Belorussian people.
That the members of Belarus Free Theatre are able to perform this piece here in New York, at La MaMa, is a miracle on its own. It was reported that they essentially had to be smuggled out of their country in the back of trucks. One of the stage managers had been in jail up until New Year’s Eve. Program biographies proudly display how almost everyone in the company has been arrested, or beaten, or jailed, or all three, for the sake of their underground art.
Directed by Vladimir Scherban, Being Harold Pinter is, for the most part, a collage of excerpts from Pinter’s work. It begins with a spill, a fall Pinter took, leading the media to pronounce his death—only to retract it when the announcement of his winning the Nobel Prize took place. This spill is represented on stage, in a simple, gasp-inducing gesture of one actor spray painting red the forehead of another. That the company is dressed in black and white adds to the power.
Through excerpts from his Nobel speech, we learn first how he worked as he wrote: the characters, initially nameless, told him where to go. Perhaps, as in The Homecoming, it began with a question. Or, in Old Times, it began with a single word. As the actors perform segments from these two plays, we begin to see the ambiguities of relationships and power struggles and violence.
“Truth in drama is forever elusive,” he says in the speech; realizing that, Scherban’s piece then segues into Pinter’s more overtly political plays, chilling works like One for the Road, during which an interrogator ambiguously interrogates—and not so ambiguously tortures—a powerless family of political prisoners.
As Being Harold Pinter winds down, with excerpts from Mountain Language and Ashes to Ashes, we realize we’re no longer hearing Pinter’s words, but words from actual Belorussian political prisoners. By this point, the entire space has been engulfed in darkness. We have witnessed the performers, the people on stage, be subjected to inhuman violence and humiliation. It is shocking and unforgettable, thanks to Scherban’s stark theatricality, a seven-member company that brings a great deal of power to Pinter’s words, all of which are spoken in Russian with English supertitles, and knowing that, no matter how ambiguous the torture and violence could be, in reality, these things do and still happen.
Of writing political plays, Pinter said in his Nobel speech, “Sermonizing has to be avoided at all cost. Objectivity is essential.” With the freedoms we have, it’s hard to be objective. Yet Pinter, a passionate political activist, managed to be objective while still creating startling commentaries on the torture and violence that exists. There is no doubt that the real-life experiences of the Belarus Free Theatre has informed its work and we are extraordinarily luckily that they are able to share it with us.