The Maintenance of Power vs the Truth in Belarus Free Theatre’s Being Harold Pinter, Young Vic
Harold Pinter was a keen supporter of outlawed Belarus Free Theatre, sending a message to the company that he was “furious” at their arrests and that of their audience carried out by the law enforcers at a performance in Minsk in 2007. Here at the post show discussion after BFT’s performance of Being Harold Pinter, Michael Attenborough, a trustee of the company, commented that Harold Pinter was very good “at holding onto his anger.” In fact, his anger grew as he aged.
Anger grows here too in this 100 minute exploration of some of his best known work, and it grows palpably, as if to express the increasing outrage and collective pain that drove so many of Harold Pinter’s plays. Incorporating excerpts from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the company, along with adapter and director Vladimir Shcherban, parallels an exploration of Harold Pinter’s indistinct working methods that the speech details, “I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did” alongside his concerns with domestic abuse and his later interest in political violence.
Various mechanisms are examined within the play. To get in, one has first to have one’s hand stamped by a man in a dinner suit (the sense of jocular non individualistic menace starts here) as if each audience member is a walking passport (we are entering Harold Pinter’s inner psychic country, a mirror reflection of reality, populated with men and women all dressed androgynously, with all the surrealist schematic design of a David Lynch film). Harold Pinter himself, a constant presence on the stage through Aleh Sidorchyk's intense and incensed incarnation, grasps his walking aid as if the stick is also a wand, that can wave things into being. To infer the idea that it is not what we have, but what we want to have and how we use that (i.e power) that’s the problem, we later see the benign aid, placed in the wrong hands, transforming into an instrument of violence and torture. The blood on Harold Pinter’s head from a fall, which happened shortly before he learned of his prize, and is an open wound throughout, is a sense of things to come, but also a homage to Harold Pinter’s commitment to exposing social and political injustice and working for the freedoms of others world wide. The fact that here another actor sprays red paint on the Aleh Sidorchyk’s head to symbolise the blood also tells us something about the pictorial representation of art. It means blood, but is it? It’s just paint. And questions begin in our minds about the real and the unreal, illusion and truth, for if the blood is sprayed on, surely it can just as easily be washed off?
Violence and its silent undercurrents predominate the mood in the play. In excerpts from Homecoming, rabid domestic abuse is encountered between father Max and son Lenny, who sit opposite each other on their blood red chairs, snarling out their words. Though centred on the banal, expressed through petty preoccupations about what one had for dinner and horse racing, the psyches of these characters are deeply manipulative and sadomasochistic and there is an eventual progression to physical violence.
Words we realise, here at least, are as important as what is not said or silence, and BFT’s fast paced delivery shores up this notion. We may not physically attack each other, but what we say to each other and imply, is just as murderous and amputating. The first word in Old Times is “dark” and we see how in the dark, literally, the characters are as they reveal awkward truths to each other, or lie or use chances for rebuttal as ways to symbolically kill.
But the progression to Mountainside Language turns this on its head. Silence now is an ethical weapon when one refuses to play, but we see how linguistic oppression, imposed by the state (Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko stigmatises the speaking of Belarusian) limits and controls individual freedom: “Language in art remains a highly ambiguous transaction, a quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen pool which might give way under you, the author, at any time” says Harold Pinter in his speech. What is true of art, is true of life.
One for the Road makes the prison warder Nicholas into an incense burning Catholic priest where his finger pointing takes the form of the sign of the cross and his torturing is by verbal suggestion. In The New World Order a naked man is cruelly castrated by a lit flame.
Ashes to Ashes is the play that BFT use to give a collective sense of our burden of guilt. Watching this the day after the Paris and Beirut attacks, it could not have felt more pertinent. For what happens to an organism and its psyche, which bear witness to the pain of others and yet believes nothing can be done, or is anyway, in other ways, itself struggling to exist? Here there is a feeling of collective guilt and powerless responsibility as a woman grapples with an aggressive man, who may or may not be her therapist/lover/husband and the terror that is going on in the world around her. How does one live? Here, the woman is drowning in remembered acts of tyranny and abuse that are not her’s and cannot possibly have been directly experienced. Nevertheless, this cannot be negative. To not feel these acts of torture and abuse, to not be affected, would be to mean a negation of the rest of the world whilst one waits to stop drowning oneself. What is required is an answer to this woman’s predicament. It feels as if here, especially as BFT end the show with statements bearing witness to their own experiences of torture by the dictatorship back home, that this is a direct provocation by the company.
And we should be provoked. It is not the woman’s fault but her right (and she is right) that she drowns in all this terror, if she considers that all men and women and children and their suffering are equal. It is our fault, my fault, your fault that a way has not been found to throw her a peaceful non violent life line that can redeem us all through action.
And all the while, Harold Pinter’s dark brooding eyes bear down on us from the back wall of the Young Vic’s Maria Studio. What now? he appears to be asking. Never has it felt more like it is down to you and me not to turn our backs, not just on the rest of the suffering world, but also, on each other, and instead of being afraid and indifferent and treating each other as unequals in our daily lives, disband boundaries, let go of our own personal thorn bushes of pain and distrust, and act and take a stand. Together and for the individual and the common good. For anything less means, yes, we can say we are equal, but actually, that is not how we treat each other. Harold Pinter’s plays and BFT show us how too easily we become blind, by making the distinct link between the personal abuses that we all, unwittingly or wittingly, engage in, and those seemingly far away happening to other people. And right now, collective humanity seems to be at a political and ethical cross roads, with one half of the world determined to take the bloodier path. I’m sure if Harold Pinter were alive he would realise this. We need to too. But the last words must belong to Pinter, and here they are, the closing sentences of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
“I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.
If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us - the dignity of man.”
performers: Nicolai Khalezin, Pavel Haradnitski, Yana Rusakevich, Yuliya Shauchuk, Aleh Sidorchyk, Dzianis Tarasenka, Maryna Yurevich
adapted and directed by: Vladimir Shcherban
Being Harold Pinter was part of Belarus Free Theatre’s Staging a Revolution, a two week festival of performances and discussion platforms from Belarus Free Theatre to mark their 10th anniversary in 2015 (2-14 November).
Performances and discussions can be found here: http://belarusfreetheatre.com/livestreaming