A double bill of Pinter’s Controllers

Victoria Station & One for the Road, Young Vic, 15 October 2011

Not often do you walk into a studio theatre and see a car engine in the middle of the floor.

A figure was slumped unconscious at a table just behind the engine. So even before the start of this hour-long Pinter double bill at the Young Vic’s Clare Theatre, the audience was intrigued.

The set remained the same for both plays. A table with microphone and chair stood in one corner of the rectangular performance area facing the length of the rectangle. Diagonally opposite was another table facing in the other direction, with the engine directly in front of it and two lamps before it representing a car.

In the other corners of the rectangle were two speakers which amplified the voice of the minicab controller in the first piece, Victoria Station. Just to the side of the car table stood a cocktail cabinet used in One for the Road. In the centre, covering a junction of cables, was an upholstered square bench.

Victoria Station

The performance began when Keith Dunphy’s controller entered and sat behind the microphone at his desk. He tried to get the driver to pick up a passenger at Victoria Station. The only problem was that the driver not only did not know where he was, but he had also never heard of Victoria Station.

A pleasing contrast was established between the exasperated precision of the Irish controller, whose eyes burned with frustration, and the confused vagueness of the English driver.

The driver’s mood altered when the controller tried to contact some of the other cars. He spat down the radio that he was the only one to be trusted and that the others were all “bloodsuckers”.

The controller referred to a car having a ‘choke’, which in the age of engine management systems is a reference that requires an explanatory footnote.

It turned out that the driver had just parked up after falling in love his passenger, a woman now asleep on the back seat. The driver said: “I’m going to stay in this car with her for the rest of my life. I’m going to marry her in this care. We’ll die together in this car.”

The controller changed from his previous sweary threats against the driver and responded warmly to the news, arranging to meet him to celebrate his newfound happiness with him.

This odd ten-minute portrait of two isolated individuals caught in an absurd and increasingly surreal situation was very satisfying. All we knew about this world was what they were telling us, and with strict realism out the window, the possibilities of their world were potentially limitless.

Anyone who has engaged in a circular and pointless online discussion will have felt an echo of the experience in this brief play.

The controller left the space, at which point Kevin Doyle stood upright and became a ‘controller’ of a different sort: Nicholas, the interrogator in One for the Road.

One for the Road

Keith Dunphy, who had undergone a rapid make-up job offstage, now re-entered as Victor the prisoner. He had facial injuries, but the main indicator of his condition was the way he shuffled into the room, taking short painful strides, the agony writ over his face more striking than the stage paint. Even the process of sitting on the centre seat looked agonising.

The text indicates that Victor’s first words are muffled and are repeated a second time. He could hardly speak due to bruising of the mouth and tongue, as directly mentioned in the final moments of the play.

Nicholas found the process of interrogation amusing and laughed at his own jokes in the way only a truly self-obsessed monster can. He ignored Victor’s pain when making him stand and sit once more, and paid no attention to the anguish produced when he talked about the prisoner’s wife and son, who were also being held somewhere in the building.

Nicholas sat on the seat with his back to Victor when getting onto the subject of Victor’s wife and their sex life, but otherwise he circled round talking to Victor from various angles.

Victor’s last words in the sequence, his repeated “Kill me” were also painfully pronounced. Nicholas responded to his pleading with more self-serving nonsense.

The lights went dark and Victor exited, still maintaining his agonised gait. This meant that he did not break out of character so that his subsequent reappearance was more convincing.

Nicholas crouched in a corner to question Victor’s son Nicky, who occupied himself by shifting with his feet along a metal barrier at the opposite side of the stage. He shuffled along one side of the structure, turned the end and shuffled back along the other side, while answering Nicholas’ questions. Nicky had spat at the soldiers who had come to take his father away and Nicholas’ final words in the sequence, reminding Nicky that those soldiers did not like him either, were quietly menacing.

Another blackout was followed by the entry of Victor’s wife, Gila. As well as being dirty and dishevelled, she had words written in black felt pen on her face. The most legible of these was SLUT. The letters had been written in capitals that flowed round each other. There was something vaguely swastika-like about the pattern, which was also reflected in the arrangement of tables and furniture in the set.

Nicholas’ interrogation of Gila was monosyllabic and far harsher than his treatment of Victor or Nicky. Gila seemed to provoke his especial ire. He swore at her in a way he had not spoken to the others. He responded to her answers with more whys? whens? and why nots? in a way that made no sense.

The lamps that had served as the minicab headlights were repositioned by Nicholas and shone at Gila to intensify his scrutiny of her.

Gila offered no real resistance and meekly put up with Nicholas’ long diatribe about the virtues of her patriotic father.

The most biting line in the play, when Nicholas responds to Gila’s inability to state how many times she has been raped with the retort “And you consider yourself a reliable witness?”, was very powerful.

The sequence ended with a hint that her maltreatment for the entertainment of the troops was going to continue.

Nicholas’ final meeting with Victor offered the promise of release. But the prisoner’s garbled question about his son heralded the play’s final devastating line “Your son? Oh, don’t worry about him. He was a little prick.”

Victor glared impotently at Nicholas as the implication of the past tense of the verb in the last sentence sank in.

At the curtain call, Anna Hewson (Gila) had tears in eyes. It was impossible to say whether she had been overcome by the force of the play, or was just emotional because this had been the final performance in the production’s run.

Conclusions

The most interesting performance of the evening was Kevin Doyle’s Nicholas. To begin with his characterisation of the inquisitor seemed understated. He came across as nothing more than a slightly eccentric teacher. This Nicholas was certainly less aggressive and vile than other examples I have seen.

But as the play progressed, this understatement made perfect sense. It captured an underlying blandness and inadequacy for which the character is trying to compensate by acting tough.

The play is a classic of political theatre and bears frequent viewing.

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