Obscure objects of sado-masochistic desire

There is something unintentionally disturbing about Harold Pinter's weaving of the political with the personal in `Ashes to Ashes'. Paul Taylor has an unhappy hour
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The Independent Culture
You know where you are with Harold Pinter - in the sense that you can rest assured you won't know precisely where you are. Ashes to Ashes, his new play, is set in a room that seems bent on not giving anything away. A perfect riot of beige, it has all the anonymity of hotel accommodation, with its two beige armchairs, two beige tables, and two beige lampshades. If it weren't for the large domestic window, you'd be looking round for the beige mini-bar.

We catch the fortysomething couple who live here in the middle of a charged conversation. Badgered with insistent questions by her current partner, Devlin (Stephen Rea), Lindsay Duncan's Rebecca is describing a sado-masochistic ritual she used to engage in with a former, unnamed lover who would make her kiss his fist and then ask him to put his hand round her throat. In her account of this practice, the difference between compulsion and voluntary compliance gets oddly blurred, just as the relationship we are watching on stage, though it's evidently between long-term intimates, has a sinister smack of that between interrogator and prisoner.

Devlin's obsessive curiosity about his partner's erotic past and Rebecca's use of "subjective" memories in their power game is reminiscent of the situation in one of this author's finest plays, Old Times, re-scored here for two voices rather than three. But, in some of the rhetorical tactics and the references, there are also eerie reminders of the inquisitions Pinter dramatised in those short, sharp, shock political plays One for the Road, Mountain Language and The New World Order.

This index-linking in Ashes to Ashes between the private and public worlds becomes more explicit when Rebecca recalls having been taken by her ex- lover to see a sinister-sounding factory where a cap-doffing, intimidated workforce are the obedient vassals of unbenevolent despotism. My colleague Michael Billington's wonderfully well-informed and absorbing book The Life and Work of Harold Pinter reveals that one of the influences on the play is Gitta Sereny's brilliant biography of Albert Speer, Hitler's Minister for Armaments and Munitions from 1942. The image in that book of the Nazi slave-labour factories, which had only primitive privies overflowing with shit, made a strong impression on the dramatist and it finds its way into Ashes to Ashes, we learn, in Rebecca's memory of being unable to find a bathroom during her visit.

The play does not specify where the factory was. Gradually, though, as we hear of such atrocities as babies being torn from the arms of screaming mothers on railway platforms, the Holocaust seems to be more explicitly invoked. Indeed, if Sereny's biography is an influence, an infinitely less elevated work struck me as a possible and embarrassing analogue: Sophie's Choice. I say that not just because, towards the climax of the piece, Rebecca has a dreamlike "recollection" of handing over her baby during deportation to a man in authority and of never seeing it again. A more worrying similarity is the connection the play makes between sado- masochistic sexual violence in a private relationship and the brutalities inflicted in a totalitarian state - the one type of fascism a reflection of the other.

If such an equivalence exists, this play does not persuade me of it. As for the suggestion that all of this could easily happen in Britain - Rebecca tells the vision she had while looking out of a window in Dorset and of seeing guides shepherding crowds of people to their deaths in the sea - I found myself worrying how these mooted comparabilities might strike someone actually living in a totalitarian regime or, indeed, a Holocaust survivor.

Pinter's production takes about an hour, but the pace of this very static piece is often agonisingly slow (particularly in a passage where Rebecca's words are given a ghostly echo). Lindsay Duncan shifts skilfully between a kind of tranced remoteness and sly cat-and-mouse game tactics with her recollections. But, to my ear, the slight Irish lilt with which Stephen Rea delivers his lines dissipates the menace and defensiveness written into their rhythm.

As with much of later Pinter, you may feel at once short-changed and over-stuffed. A niggardly number of details are laden with a stifling weight of latent significance and the portentous thud with which clues are dropped into the proceedings is almost comic, as when Rebecca makes sudden mention of "a bundle" (eventually to be revealed as a baby). The couple's power-struggle sparring over words and meanings - whether it makes sense, say, to refer to "a perfectly innocent pen" - often comes across as tired self-parody.

Emerging from a production of The Birthday Party, I once heard a woman saying to her companion: "I wonder if Meg ever realises that Stanley isn't coming back." The more natural query would be to wonder when she realises this. Pinter's plays are, like rituals, so hermetically self-sufficient that they don't invite normal speculation as to the future fate of their characters. Ashes to Ashes ends enigmatically with Rebecca perhaps having learnt, through imaginative identification with the suffering of others, the power to resist Devlin's attempts to revive the sado-masochistic practices of her ex-lover. It reflects badly, either on me or on Ashes to Ashes, that my concern about what would happen to them ended the moment the play did.

In Wednesday's paper, I was quoted as saying that I had a Harold Pinter problem. This latest piece, does not, I'm afraid, help me solve it.

To 26 Oct. Royal Court Theatre Upstairs at the Ambassadors. Booking: 0171-730 1745