Promenade theatre has been fashionable for several years now. Theatre practitioners often want us to leave our comfy auditoriums and test an audience’s dedication by taking it to new and often less salubrious locations. It’s best to be agnostic about the practice but Hydrocracker has a production of five short Harold Pinter plays, presented as The New World Order, which is worth going a long way for.
Certainly, at least as far as Shoreditch Town Hall. After being frisked and given identity cards, the audience is taken to meeting rooms and then travels down to the building’s scruffy basement, shovelling around its seemingly labyrinthine rooms. The constant theme is Pinter’s nightmarish vision of a state slipping into totalitarianism. The short plays unfold with increasing violence and fit well with the promenade format, but that is the only comfortable thing about the evening – this is powerful political theatre.
Whether The New World Order is more forceful because of this format is an open question. Director Ellie Jones does a superb job: not only in marshalling the audience (although it must help to have a cast playing soldiers who can shout at people) but also in maintaining tension, atmosphere and linking the scenes. Nonetheless, the complicity with the soldiers that is hinted at can’t really grow. You are given the chance to try and help one of those held prisoner but few will, not because they are unfeeling, but for fear of disrupting the performance. Putting actors into the audience never really works – you can sense them a mile off! And while the often incredibly close proximity to the action is intense, it can be intimidating which, sadly, stifles Pinter’s savage humour.
Jones’ direction is impressive because she appreciates the urgency of Pinter’s late political writing. As a recent production at The Print Room demonstrated, these plays are strong enough to be performed with minimal sets, and Jones anchors her work in the script, bringing out a stringent performance from Hugh Ross, who plays the terrifying Minister of Cultural Integrity, and a small but remarkable cameo from Jane Wood. And Jones has a final trick up her sleeve: as one of the victims is released, the audience follows him into the night. This denies the cast its well-deserved applause, yet provokes thought on the long journey home.
Until 11 December 2011
Photo by Matthew Andrews
Written 21 November 2011 for The London Magazine