Theatre: Pinter plays three

Pinter triple bill Donmar Warehouse, London
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It's no surprise that actors win awards for performances in plays by Harold Pinter. Having begun his career as an actor, he has gone on to write roles rich in dramatic ambiguity for his peers to feast upon - and this triple bill is a veritable banquet.

The playwright gives a virtual acting master class as Harry, stabbing scenes with deliciously droll comedy in The Collection, the first part of a touring double bill with The Lover. Both plays are steeped in sexual politics but, despite dating from the Sixties, neither seems dated.

The Collection is a fascinating four-hander which opens with Harry being woken by a call from James whose wife Stella has apparently had a one- night stand with Harry's lover Bill in a hotel in Leeds. The play is a comingly choreographed dance of confrontations between all four characters. Bill coolly denies Stella's story but, succumbing to James's intensity, tells the truth. Or does he? Is he lying? And, if not, where does that leave the increasingly possessive Harry? In fact, "the truth" of the matter is merely a Hitchcockian MacGuffin. In a film like Notorious, we don't really care a fig about the secret stash of uranium in Claude Rains's cellar, it's just there to put Ingrid Bergman in peril. In The Collection, Pinter uses possible adultery as a device to investigate ideas about love and trust. Harry becomes so angry he calls Bill "a slum-slug," a remark all the more stinging given that the actor playing Bill is black. There's a terrific tension as the captivatingly controlled Colin McFarlane weathers the insult with majestic aplomb.

It's difficult to take a radical line on a text when the author is in the rehearsal room, let alone the cast, but aside from the uncertain isolation of the surprise sexual attraction between Bill and wronged husband James, director Joe Harmston gives the play its full measure. The only real problem is that its TV roots sometimes show and the over-literal staging never quite finds the satisfying alternative for close-ups. Seated for the most part at the back, Lia Williams ends up stranded. The triumph of her omniscient position - she really does know what happened in Leeds - is undercut.

She is far stronger as Sarah in The Lover. Her husband Richard sets off for a typical day in the City. "Is your lover coming today?" he asks, amiably. "Mmm," she replies, beaming. Then we discover that the idea of spreadsheets has a double meaning for Richard, who regularly visits a whore. It doesn't take long to realise that they have double lives as each other's fantasy lover.

There's more than a hint of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? about the whole thing. Not only do the centre couple act out fantasies to sustain the marriage, but childlessness is a central issue. Sarah freezes when Richard plays his trump card; the game must end because of "the children". Unlike Albee, however, Pinter's power play comes down in favour of the woman who is movingly revealed as the stronger player with Sarah manipulating the situation to save them both. Douglas Hodge is all together outstanding as the increasingly desperate Richard, and a huge range of emotions floods forth as the comedy gives way to real heartache.

There's all that and more in the first play. Drawn from an Oliver Sacks history, A Kind Of Alaska is a quiet masterpiece about a woman who wakes up having slept for 29 years. A doctor tenderly watches over her waking just as he has her sleeping, and it's he that anchors the rhythm of the writing. Bill Nighe is a little over-fretful but evokes great tenderness between himself and Deborah who struggles with a terrifying collision between what she knows to be her life and what the doctor and her sister reveal as the truth.

As Deborah, Penelope Wilson is mesmerising. Lying still against a cloud of pillows, her face blanched, it's as if she has drained herself of her own personality to become a conduit for Pinter's astonishingly beautiful text. She finds comedy in places you'd never imagine possible and never sentimentalises the character. Even in longing silence, the clarity of her thoughts echoes round the auditorium at the start of this magnificent evening of theatre.

The triple bill is at the Donmar Warehouse (0171-369 1732) until 12 June.

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