Harold Pinter Theatre, London
Even the greatest of dramatists suffer a posthumous winnowing of their works, with only the most reliably popular revived, apart from an occasional rarity on the fringe. This, though, turns out to be yet another sense in which Harold Pinter is exceptional. A “Pinter at the Pinter” season that started in September at the West End theatre named after the dramatist will, by February, have staged, across a sequence of seven productions, all of the author’s short plays, some previously unknown.
“Pinter Three”, the latest of the assortment, has the benefit of containing a one-acter that is the equal of any of the full-length plays. A Kind of Alaska (1982) is a sort of epidemiological Sleeping Beauty, inspired by Oliver Sacks’ research into victims of encephalitis lethargica, a virus that, in 1916-17, put patients into a catatonic paralysis from which they emerged decades later through a revivifying drug.
Pinter’s protagonist, Deborah, emerges after 29 years to find herself in what seems, from the maths, to be 1946. It’s typical of the heft of even the simplest Pinter exchanges that when the revenant asks her doctor, Hornby, “The war is over?”, and he replies, “Yes”, she means the First World War, but he may also wryly be including the Second.