When asked to play the role of Nicolas in Harold Pinter’s controversial one act play “One For The Road” as part of the Lantern Theatre’s Taste Of Pinter event, I imagined the taste could be a bitter one. The piece is powerfully dark, almost overpowering. Marmite, if you will.
Pinter himself had taken to the stage to play the role, I believe in part to champion the work that had caused much upset and debate on the nature of ‘political theatre’. It was a daunting task to take on the role with such shoes to fill, no matter how briefly.
For those who love Pinter’s metaphorical Marmite, One For The Road is considered a ‘miniature masterpiece’. Nicolas is, perhaps typically of Pinter, an ambiguous figure defined by his contradictions and idiosyncrasies. He is an alcoholic in desperate need of validation, a man searching for real human connection in a disconnected world. He is a man who values loyalty, service, and leadership. He takes pride in his work. He is amiable, loquacious, and enjoys nothing better than to sit down and have a nice conversation.
It is in conversation with a husband, wife and child that the true hideousness of his nature becomes apparent. He is responsible for the repeated rape of the wife, the removal of the husband’s tongue, and the murder of the child. All these horrors are enacted at his behest, but never with his own hand. To him they are merely games; tools with which to psychologically abuse his prisoners for their unknown transgressions. The best we have to work with to understand his motivations are the many political allusions Nicolas provides through his prideful boasts and painful breakdowns.
With subject matter so dark, and a presentation so raw and unflinching, it is not surprising that the piece caused audience members to leave the theatre each night. Reports filtered back to me of traumatised viewers slaking their nerves with wine before disappearing into the night uttering, “the most disgusting thing I have ever seen” and words to that effect.
What may come as a surprise, then, is that none of these horrors were shown, merely chatted whimsically about in hindsight with those who had been forced to endure them.
Pinter aimed to lift the veil on the use and effects of torture. He wanted to show people the reality. And yet, as always with Pinter, the reality is all in what is not said, what is not seen, what is not done. It plagues the viewer.
In One For The Road, Pinter created a phenomenal display of the power of words and emotion. Words and emotion were enough to create a reality in the minds of the audience that they could not bear to experience. In this way, I could only see the walk-outs as a triumph. I love Marmite.
The imagination creates its own horrors from the words and emotions- they elicit a darkness that comes from within the individual, not from the stage. Perhaps that is what makes this masterpiece so effective, and why its resonant themes might motivate some to action. Luckily, Pinter is as versatile as he is virtuoso, and the night was rescued from our dark political storm-cloud by the comical, the uplifting and the heartfelt in a collection of shorts that proved his reputation as a writing maven was well-earned.