On occasion, context is all, or if not all, then at least a lot. It is very likely – a certainty even – that if the actors from the Belarus Free Theater return to their homeland, they will be arrested for their performances of “Being Harold Pinter.” The actors had to sneak out of their country to make it to New York’s Under the Radar Festival to avoid arrest. They can currently stay in the U.S. only so long as they are working, and this month-long engagement arranged speedily by a coalition of Chicago institutions provides a means for them to do so as they contemplate their options.
That is all very real, of course, and important as a journalistic fact. But make no mistake about it: the work on stage is exceptionally well-layered dramatic art. This troupe of talented actors performs a mixture of fictional and factual writing about the conflation of illusion and reality. They play out sequences of human cruelty and depict politically motivated physical suffering that these very actors could possibly experience – for real – for performing it.
“Being Harold Pinter” combines excerpts from Pinter’s lecture accepting the Nobel Prize, a variety of scenes from plays such as his early “The Homecoming” and his later, more directly political “Mountain Language,” and letters written by political prisoners in Belarus. With just four chairs, a picture of Pinter’s staring eyes at the back of the stage, and black suits and white shirts, the cast of seven under the direction of Vladimir Scherban create a series of stage images that provide provocative but not always literal reflections on the text.
The Pinter sequences all crackle with the tense battle between language and intent that makes the playwright one of the greats. And those staring eyes possess a double entendre worthy of the writer – it’s both a tribute to their artistic muse and a creepy image of an oppressive, intrusive state.
From the opening moments, when one actor spray paints red on the forehead of another, who touches it gingerly and looks at his hand as if it were really blood, while quoting from Pinter about how life can turn dark in an instant, we know we’re experiencing something thoughtful and intense and disturbing in its own right. It’s additionally punctuated with the urgency of its political and personal context.
And all together, it’s unforgettable.