Mountain Language/ Ashes to Ashes, Royal Court Theatre, London

The barbarians are inside the gates
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The Independent Culture

In Kate Mitchell's taut and intense production, these two plays by Harold Pinter make perfect sense as a double bill. In both there's a background of totalitarian barbarism, along with the implication that Britain could easily sink into that state. But whereas Mountain Language (1988) is devastatingly direct about this in its biting dramatisation of the plight of a people whose mother tongue is being forcibly suppressed, in Ashes to Ashes (1996), the suggestions of political horror seep more insidiously into the depiction of a private relationship. The juxtaposition of the two pieces here is revealing. You see that in Ashes to Ashes, Pinter has effectively merged the manner of an earlier drama like Old Times – where the focus is on obsessive erotic curiosity and the use of taunting subjective memories – with the more public concerns of his short-sharp-shock political pieces, such as One for the Road and Mountain Language itself.

Played in an unbroken 60-odd minutes, the production begins with an unnerving jolt as the theatre is suddenly pitched into darkness and the sound of barking guard dogs shreds the nerves. Set in a prison camp, the four episodes of Mountain Language – which was inspired by the Turkish treatment of the Kurds – unfold as a succession of powerfully framed snapshots of jeering tyranny rejoicing in its own arbitrariness. In the line of women in the snow outside the camp, an old lady waiting to see her son is nursing a badly bitten hand. But instead of medical attention, she's mocked with a deliberate, Alice-like parody of procedural nicety and a heartless toying with the terms of discourse. The dog in question must be personally named. "If you tell me one of our dogs bit this woman without giving his name, I will have that dog shot," scoffs the intimidating officer.

In the dreadful scene where she and her son meet in the visitors' room but have to sit in silence, forbidden to speak except in the language of the capital, whispered voice-overs suggest that there is a form of communication over which the smug guards have less than total control. They win in the end, though. Later, when the son has been bloodily beaten and the guard knows the old lady is too traumatised to utter anything, he announces that the language ban has been lifted. No dignity is left for the tragic characters here as they become the butt of tyranny's sick jokes. The clankings of the prison and the deafening whirr of a helicopter give way to the arcadian twitterings of birdsong and a video close-up of lush, green leaves. A world away – or is it?

What strikes me now about Ashes to Ashes is how similar in theme it is to Sarah Kane's Blasted. She wanted to show that there is a clear continuum between a sexual assault in a Leeds hotel room and the rape camps in Bosnia. So she sent the horrors of Bosnia bursting into the location of that private English crime. Beginning with the recollection of a sado-masochistic ritual, Ashes to Ashes likewise attempts to remove the divide between its comfortable English setting and a world of fascism and systematised cruelty. Only in Pinter's play that world enters not in a violent irruption but through the dream-like "memories" and prophetic visions of the female protagonist, Rebecca, who is being interrogated by her badgering partner (Neil Dudgeon) about a former lover.

It's here that I have problems with the piece. It just seems too glibly convenient to Pinter's purposes to give Rebecca such archetypal recollections that have a strong smack of life under Nazism – of babies being torn screaming from their mothers on railway platforms; of a slave-labour factory of obedient vassals, a herd which is later re-evoked in the image, supposedly seen from a window in Dorset, of guides ushering crowds of people to their deaths in the sea. Anastasia Hille is very impressive, especially in the gathering bleakness and the final note of aching, sullen denial in her last monologue where she achieves complete identification with a woman who has to hand her baby over to the fascist brutes. And there's a beautiful effect at the end when snow falls at the back of the set, bringing that distant desolation close to home. But too much of Ashes to Ashes feels artificial and engineered. For me, the much simpler Mountain Language makes the stronger impact.

To 21 July (020-7565 5000)

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper

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