A torturer speaks — about the pain and pleasures of Pinter

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

“Some years ago at Black Stripe Theatre in Tokyo, we did a reading of Harold Pinter’s one-act play ‘One for the Road,’ and I have ever since wanted to put it on.

“Back then, I was asked to take the part of Nicolas (an officer in a totalitarian state who thinks nothing of torturing people) — which I did with mounting horror. There were some young women there, and afterward it was quite clear that none of them wanted to come near me.”

A longtime Japan resident, and university teacher here, Timothy Harris — a British-born stage and screen actor, narrator and English-diction coach for Japanese opera singers (as well as for the chorus of the Rolling Stones’ recent “14 On Fire” tour) — was explaining why he chose to stage the two short Pinter plays “One for the Road” (1984)” and “Ashes to Ashes (1996)” with Black Stripe Theatre.

Founded in 2007 by Tokyo-based foreigners, Black Stripe’s mission has always been to stage cutting-edge contemporary Western plays rather than well-worn crowd-pleasers by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams et al. This time, Harris not only directs both plays but also acts the main role, of merciless, mid-40s Nicolas, in “One for the Road.”

“That is an immensely intense and economical little play which lasts about 35 minutes and portrays the ironical horror of absolute power in a society that has fallen under the rule of thugs,” Harris explained.

“When I looked for another short play by Pinter to go with it, I eventually settled on ‘Ashes to Ashes,’ which examines the ambiguities and strangeness of memory, along with the terrors of history felt by a woman afflicted by recollections of traumatic violence.

“Its themes accord with those of ‘One for the Road,’ without echoing them in an obvious way; it also provides a good contrast.”

Pinter (1930-2008), who was the 2005 Nobel laureate in literature, is well known for his unique “comedy of menace” drama style characterized by short bursts of often ambiguous conversation and inter-personal power struggles frequently in the elusive context of a volatile past.

Yet, though the East Londoner’s plays merit their own adjective — “Pinteresque” — in Japan, thanks to works such as “The Dumb Waiter” (1960) and “The Homecoming” (1965), he is generally regarded as being a master of the absurd.

Unfortunately, though, he is also felt to be “difficult,” so his works don’t often get major stagings here as audiences are thought to go to the theater to be entertained and experience a little lighthearted catharsis rather than being left to mull bitter social issues, troubling ambiguities and unresolved questions.

Harris, though, dealt with such concerns in a trice, saying, “Don’t worry.”

“The plays are extraordinarily ambiguous, and that ambiguity cannot be cleared up through rationalization and analysis — which doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t think about them!

“One has to accept that ambiguity — live with it, and — as a director or actor —present it. Which, again, doesn’t mean lazily settling on a sort of inchoate vagueness whose ‘deep meanings’ you hope the audience will somehow ‘get.’ For, despite the ambiguity and strangeness at their heart, the plays also require great precision in terms of the delivery of lines and the movement on stage.”

Harris also pointed to a special benefit of Pinter’s plays being presented in English this time, with a native English-speaking cast.

“I find him wonderfully musical. He also touches on very deep and difficult aspects of our humanity — particularly in connection with power, sex and loneliness. In terms of direction, I am doing what I always try to do: to ‘listen’ to the plays and to understand them as fully as I can. Then, on the basis of that understanding, I make my interpretation.”

The double bill of “Ashes to Ashes” and “One for the Road” runs March 28-30 at Trance Mission Theater in Sangubashi, a 3-minute walk from Sangubashi Station on the Odakyu Line. For more details, call (03) 5825-4661 or visit blackstripetheater.com.