Do you feel you’re being hypnotized?” Devlin (Stephen Rea) asks Rebecca (Lindsay Duncan) early in Harold Pinter’s hourlong “Ashes to Ashes,” which inaugurates the Royal Court’s new second stage on the West End with an uneven production that proves to be of less interest for the moment than the compelling play itself.
The question is one Pinter might well ask his audiences. Having helped to reshape drama for much of his astonishing career, Pinter has produced work that’s increasingly distilled and cryptic, his recent output fluctuating in playing time from 80 minutes to less than 10. These days, it is easier to think of him as a seasoned hypnotist casting a mesmeric if not always explicable spell , rather than as a craftsman willing even to nod in the direction of such dramatic niceties as an identifiable plot, character or even location.
Since when, one might reply, was Pinter ever lucid? This is a dramatist who has made a career out of the enigmatic, for whom the most sensuous moments are arrived at suggestively. Not for nothing has Pinter long been indebted to Beckett: Their shared interest lies in charting the mysteries of the soul, not in chronicling events.
“Ashes to Ashes,” then, is a departure a chronicle play of a highly opaque and disturbing sort that, unusually, finds Pinter the conjurer fighting Pinter the tease. Where is it occurring? The published text refers to “a house in the country,” but which country? Though Dorset in southern England is mentioned, other details seem to imply the place if not the time of the Holocaust, not least an emerging narrative line that recalls, of all things, “Sophie’s Choice” crossed with the sexual politics of “Death and the Maiden.”
The opening exchange carries various echoes of the Ariel Dorfman play (which Pinter was instrumental in bringing to the British stage). Staring into space from her chair to the left of designer Eileen Diss’ aptly gray, faceless set, Rebecca tells Devlin (her present lover and interrogator) about a past violent sexual surrender in which she was complicit. “My body went back slowly but truly ,” Rebecca says, the occasional half-smile our only hint as to her feelings toward the episode. Devlin, in turn, demands ever more information about the unnamed partner: “I mean, what did he look like? Can’t you give him a shape? I want a concrete image.”
He’s in the wrong play, of course, to expect a concrete image, so we get instead Rebecca’s dreamy recollections of a railway station, a discolored “frozen city,” a pen that rolled off a table. (This last image prompts a discourse from Devlin about the parentage, so to speak, of a pen that sounds as if Pinter has been steeping himself in one PEN conference too many.)
Rebecca’s introduction of “mental elephantiasis” intoher report suggests she may not be the most reliable narrator, and so it proves. Though she insists midway through, “Nothing has ever happened to me I have never suffered,” we discover the opposite to be true. Rebecca has suffered a horrific loss, the revelation of which will strike audiences as either wrenching or emotionally opportunistic, depending on their tolerance for a play that sometimes pastiches what it ought to reinvent.
Connoisseurs will have a fine time ticking off Pinter touchstones: the “frozen city” recalling the “icy and silent” wasteland of “No Man’s Land”; the references to pop music and cinema outings (both part of “Old Times”) set against the backdrop of totalitarian misrule that has become more explicit in Pinter works from “One for the Road” and “Mountain Language” on.
To which conflict is Pinter referring? One could argue, all of them. While the Holocaust can be glimpsed behind Rebecca’s encoded references to platforms, trains, and a guide (note, too, her Hebraic name), Devlin has presumably not been given an Irish name by accident. If anything, Pinter could be faulted for the falsifying implication that the Holocaust lives on close at hand, yet under a different guise though his insistence on a still-suffering world that we, like Rebecca, try to shut out is a hard one to refute.
More difficult to accept is an uncustomarily slack production, directed by the author, that makes “Ashes to Ashes” feel far longer than the Almeida Theater “Moonlight,” which was almost half again as long. Beyond a shocking gesture late on to suggest that Devlin may in fact be the fearsome lover of whom Rebecca has been speaking, Rea can do little to animate the latest in Pinter’s long list of ominous inquisitors dating back to Goldberg and McCann in “The Birthday Party.”
Duncan, her skin more translucent than ever, has the better role, and meets it with a superbly modulated shift from implacable cool to fierce panic. (She crosses her arms when standing, as if shivering at the chill of memory.) Rebecca’s calm returns at the end, this time accompanied by an unnerving aphasia , as she leaves off talking to Devlin only to be met instead by a persistent echo.
Is the echo the voice of memory that won’t forget, or the nagging ghost that haunts her apparently serene facade? The device not only recalls Beckett but concludes a problematic play on a properly disquieting note. That it stirs us indicates Pinter rising to yet another risk and shows why we will continue to debate the author of “Ashes to Ashes” long after most of his contemporaries have turned to dust.