Brighton Fringe 2014
One of the things I love most about Fringe drama is that the shows are not usually put on in ‘traditional’ theatres, the kind with a proscenium arch and a Dress Circle. They’re done elsewhere, and the directors and designers have to use a lot of creativity to fit their productions into small studio spaces, rooms above pubs – or a basement sitting-room at Gulliver’s Hotel, in the case of ‘See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil.’
Rooster Theatre Company have managed to shoehorn three of Harold Pinter’s plays – ‘Landscape’, ‘One For The Road’ and ‘Silence’ – into a very restricted space indeed. It could fit fewer than twenty of us in the audience, leaving less than half the area for the three actors; but they managed to give us three different settings. As we entered, light was falling from the large window on to a couple eating breakfast – coffee and toast – at a small round dining table at one side of the room.
The man in dark trousers and a white open-necked shirt, The woman wearing a blue dress, which contrasted with the small vase of red flowers on the table. Their clothing, the blooms and the tall white coffee pot made the whole scene look rather elegant, and a small watercolour hung on a white panel to one side of them.
She talked as she stirred her coffee, lyrical reminiscences about walking on the beach in the sunshine, up to the dunes where her lover was waiting for her. As she continued, though, the man cut across her narrative by scraping butter onto his toast so loudly, so aggressively, that the noise almost drowned her out.
Then the man began talking, his words almost entirely about negative experiences – people he’d argued with or things that had turned out badly. They carried on like this throughout the piece – her rosily romantic memories intercut with his angry pessimism, and his memories of being unfaithful, as they talked past each other without ever connecting. They refilled their coffee cups several times, and at one point she pointedly poured coffee over his toast. He didn’t respond.
Pinter himself once wrote – "There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place. When true silence falls we are still left with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness"
That’s the essence of this production. ‘Landscape’ is a bleak view of non-communication in a relationship, and Laura Lee and Samuel Nunes de Souza managed to hint at great deal of anger – on both sides – locked beneath the seemingly placid surface. Their delivery was a bit quiet and rather fast – a realistic portrayal of actual speech but making it hard for the audience to keep up at times. Directors sometimes forget that the audience has to process the speech in real-time – unlike the players, who’ve said the lines over and over in rehearsal.
At the end of ‘Landscape’ the actors went off behind the white panel, taking the watercolour painting with them. Now a tall man walked on, in a black suit and tie, and closed the curtains, darkening the room. There was a small bureau next to the window, and he switched on a desk lamp.
Shortish hair slightly moussed up, beard a bit further on than just designer stubble, and good cufflinks; he looked like some kind of successful – and expensive – therapist or doctor as he greeted us, waving his index finger in our faces. "What do you think this is? Do you like me waving my fingers in your eyes? My big finger and my little finger."
Nick – he told us his name – was obviously a bit strange (but that’s therapy for you), as he mused – "Whose side do you think God is on?". Rather eccentric, if slightly creepy; but then suddenly, conversationally – "Where do you think your wife is? …She’s in another room … Good looking woman …"
A vertigo-inducing realisation. This thing is an Interrogation. Nick is some kind of Government security official, and it doesn’t sound like a very liberal Government. Now a light snapped on behind the white panel – it was in fact a translucent screen – revealing the shadow of a seated figure facing us. This is who Nick had really been addressing all along. The shadow figure sat very still, and it occurred to me that Nick’s index and little fingers would just fit into my eye sockets.
Alexander John as Nick, sipping whisky while he talks about his soldiers raping the man’s wife – and asking, almost as an afterthought, about his child. The actor didn’t overplay it – no raging or brutality, just the reasoned tones of a reasonable man, doing what’s necessary to defend his country’s values and religion. "The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear" says Pinter. Nick, with his smile and his little drinks – "Just one for the road, Eh?", is the most frightening thing I’ve seen in months.
Alexander John’s delivery was flawless; we could hear every word with great clarity and occasionally he stood very close and stared directly down at a few of us. When that happened I couldn’t resist glancing at the shadow on the screen – to see how he was reacting. Designer Laura Duffy has done a very clever job with the set – the white translucent panel allowing the action to segue seamlessly from one location to the next.
Duffy is also the co-director of this production, along with Sofia Nakou, and they were equally creative with the third play. ‘Silence’ examines the relationships of a woman with two older men, each of whom might be possibly be, or have been, her lover (with Pinter it’s never clear). As in the other two plays, characters talk volubly to hide what they don’t want to reveal to another – or maybe even to themselves.
The curtains were still closed, and the three actors moved to a group of alcoves on the room’s other wall, and we all twisted in our seats to watch them. Nunes de Souza sitting on the left, John standing on the right, Laura Lee squeezed into an arched alcove at centre. The lines jump between the characters, and the actors held small lamps which illuminated just their heads, and only when they spoke. The lights snapping on and off gave an extra edginess to their words.
The left-hand alcove was pasted with squares of black card, regular and precisely aligned on the wall behind him. The regularity continued on to the left side of the arch, but began to break up at the top of the arch and the squares on the right-hand side were overlapping and patched with tape. By the time the decoration reached John’s alcove the squares of card had broken up completely into torn chunks, and at the far right into sharp-cornered triangles, like arrow heads or shards of broken glass.
Pinter’s text is clear about the difference of emotional stability between the two men, and this production’s set design made the contrast very visual. In their speech, too, Samuel Nunes de Souza’s voice was calm and measured, while Alexander John’s delivery was more staccato and angry. Both actors managed a completely different characterisation from their roles in the first two plays.
Overall, this was a creditable interpretation of Pinter, and a very imaginative use of what must initially have seemed an unpromising space. An inspired choice of plays, too. Fifteen years or so separates ‘One For The Road’ from the other two plays, but Rooster Theatre saw that there were enough common themes to make a satisfying programme.
It was a great shame that no programmes or cast lists were available at the venue, and the company doesn’t appear to have a usable website to showcase their considerable talents. Hopefully they’ll rectify this soon.