Stage Door Review

Little Menace: Pinter Plays

Thursday, March 7, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

by Harold Pinter, directed by Thomas Moschopoulos

Soulpepper Theatre Company, Young Centre, Toronto

February 21-March 17, 2019

“I mean, apart from all, that how are you, really?

Little Menace is a highly enjoyable survey of some of Harold Pinter’s short plays and sketches. The pieces from 1959 to 2006 not only provide an overview of Pinter’s work but give us glimpses of aspects of his art in a more concentrated form than we find in his full-length or even his one-act plays. Soulpepper Resident International Fellow, director Thomas Moschopoulos, has assembled his ten selected skits in order of increasing menace and has drawn scintillating performances from the entire cast. 

The 90-minute show begins with Pinter’s sketches that highlight the absurdities of everyday conversation. One might think that nothing could be easier than greeting another person with “Hello. How are you?”, but Pinter’s 2006 sketch Apart from That finds even that can be a tricky subject. Two men (Gregory Prest and Alex McCooeye) meet and find that apart from “that” – an unknown never defined – they are both well or at least seem to be well. Moschopoulos repeats this sketch three more times throughout the show using different combinations of his four-member cast. This provides a through-line to the show and suggests that the difficulty of simple expression is a universal characteristic. Pinter has written that the “that” in the phrase “apart from that” has no specific meaning, so it is rather too bad that Moschopoulos gives it one in the sketch’s last iteration at the show’s end.

From this introduction Moschopoulos gives us Pinter’s portrayals of various farcical situations. Trouble in the Works from 1959 is like a Monty Python sketch. A worker (Prest) complains to the head of the company (Diego Matamoros) that the workers are happy but they no longer like the products they make. While the company’s products sound like they might be pipe fittings and connections, the technical terms the boss and worker use for them all sound vaguely sexual, as if the workers were put off by having to make sex toys. 

In the follow-up sketch, That’s Your Trouble from the same year, two businessmen (McCooeye and Prest) argue over what sort of pain a sandwich-board carrying man might feel. The man Prest plays seems to know what he says from experience but is unwilling to let the other man know he ever had held so lowly a job. The next sketch is the first that sounds most like Pinter.  In Last to Go from 2002 a man who runs a newspaper stand (Matamoros) tries to have a conversation with a barman (Prest) who is not interested. The way that the newsman tries to lend selling his last paper any significance is both funny and pathetic. 

In the fourth of this series, Special Offer, again from 1959, a woman (Maev Beaty) wonders that there could be a business so ridiculous as one that sells men to women. Reverse the genders, however, and what was a funny sketch is not funny at all. Pinter likely means us to ask ourselves why.

After the first reprise of Apart from That, the show moves on to the best short play of the evening, Victoria Station from 1982. In this a taxi dispatcher (Diego Matamoros) attempts to locate a cab driver (McCooeye) who could pick up a good fare from Victoria Station. The driver, however, who seems to be in some sort of impenetrable mental daze, not only does not know where he is but claims he’s never heard of Victoria Station. The situation is funny enough but Pinter shifts it in an unexpected direction when the dispatcher starts to look for another driver. The first driver does not want the dispatcher to leave him. Here we have a more condensed example of the kind of sideways glide in a situation that Pinter employed to such disconcerting effect in The Homecoming (1965).

So far the atmosphere of menace for which Pinter is so well know has not yet appeared. This changes abruptly with the following sketch New World Order from 1991. Here two thugs (Prest and McCooeye) remind a man in audience that they will be doing “things” to him and later to his wife. What these things are and why they will be done is unknown. The humour comes from the fact that second thug (McCooeye) seems merely to be repeating what the first thug (Prest) says as if he, too, didn’t know what exactly they were going to do. Suddenly a change comes over the second thug and he has a revelation of what his purpose is. What humour there was drains from the sketch as its implications become extremely disturbing. 

After the third iteration of Apart from That, the show moves into the longest and, unfortunately, the least effective short play of the evening. This is The Basement, originally written and broadcast as a television play in 1967. Its origin explains its dizzying changes of location. In its story about two men fighting for dominance over a space and over a young woman, the play is very much like The Homecoming of the previous year. In execution, however, it is flawed and even the fine acting of the company can’t disguise this.

The play is acted as if it were a screenplay that a director (Matamoros) is imagining. On a rainy night Stott (Prest) comes to visit an old friend Law (McCooeye), who is glad to see him and welcomes him to stay with him. Stott has also brought his girlfriend Jane (Beaty), and Law welcomes her, too. At first Law is put off by the noise of his guests’ lovemaking, but eventually Jane makes advances toward Law and it is Stott who feels betrayed. 

As least as Moschopoulos has directed it, what would have made The Basement intriguing is that the actors appear at times to rebel against the orders the director gives them as if they thought the storyline ought to go in a different direction. Pinter, however, does not expand on this idea and instead disappointingly ends the piece with a repeat with variation of the beginning scene, much as Ionesco ends The Bald Soprano (1950).

The confusion of The Basement is followed by the show’s tenderest piece Night from 1969. A husband and wife (Matamoros and Beaty) reminisce about their first meeting but can’t agree on the crucial details. It will strike many as a more extended and less abstract version of the reminiscing of Nag and Nell in Beckett’s Endgame (1957). 

Moschopoulos follows this with a second version of New World Order only with the actors playing each other’s roles and the object of their opprobrium a blindfolded Matamoros. One purpose of this repetition may be to maintain the theme of menace. Another may be to make us wonder why threats of characters directed at an audience member are funnier than the same threats directed at another character. The fourth wall may be broken in the first case but we then regard the threats as unenactable. The fourth wall is intact in the second case but that, paradoxically, makes the threats appear more real.

The thugs of New World Order are a perfect lead-in to the last major piece Press Conference from 2002. The sketch presents the press conference of a new Minister of Culture whose previous job was as the Head of the Secret Service. It would be nice if we could think of this as improbable, but we live in a world where a former Lieutenant Colonel of a secret service is President of a major country. The humour of this sketch lies in how glibly the new Minister of Culture says the most horrific things. When asked about the state attitude toward children, he states, “We distrusted children if they were the children of subversives. We abducted them and brought them up properly. Or we killed them”. 

Thus the evening moves from the unimportant absurdities of everyday life to the deeply disturbing absurdities of modern political life. The sketches have revealed Pinter as an Absurdist in the mode of Ionesco and Beckett, a master observer of the hilarity and sadness of humanity’s isolation and inability to communicate, a romantic and an anti-totalitarian political activist. To be shown all this in one evening is surely a gift and the four actors share the honours in presenting these short plays with such versatility and focus. For those who know only one or two Pinter plays, Little Menace will paradoxically demonstrate how much more than simply menace there is to Pinter’s works.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Diego Matamoros, Alex McCooeye, Gregory Prest and Maev Beaty in The Basement; Meav Beaty in Special Offer; Diego Matamoros and Gregory Prest in Last to Go. © 2019 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets, visit www.soulpepper.ca.