Victory by Joseph Conrad, screenplay by Harold Pinter, adapted by Richard Eyre

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Victory by Joseph Conrad. Screenplay by Harold Pinter, adapted by Richard Eyre. Dir. Eyre. Perf. Simon Russell Beale, Mark Strong, Vanessa Kirby. BBC Radio 4, 28 February 2015. BBCiPlayer to 30 Mar. 2015.

This highly intriguing production was notable for the fact that we were left uncertain as to precisely who authored it. Although Conrad's novel provides the source-text, the dialogue and construction is characteristic of Pinter (I refrain from using the adjective Pinteresque on the grounds that it can prove extremely difficult to define).

The basic plot is straightforward: Axel Heyst (Bjarne Henriksen) lives alone on a deserted island. Hitherto he has believed that he can cut himself entirely off from life, save for the presence of his servant Chang (Paul Chan), and thereby eliminate suffering altogether. His apparent serenity is disturbed, however, when he returns to the mainland and falls in love with Lena (Vanessa Kirby), who travels across the Pacific with a small orchestra. Yet she seems to be more trouble than she is worth: the two of them are pursued by three mysterious men, including hotel manager Schomberg (Patrick O'Kane), smooth operator Jones (Robert Portal) and thug Ricardo (Mark Strong). Heyst and Lena escape to Heyst's island, but they are followed by the men; as a result, the haven of peace that Heyst tried to create is shattered.

Narrated in the continuous present tense by Simon Russell Beale, Victory could be interpreted as a thriller in which no one (not least the narrator) knew what would happen next. Heyst had tried so hard to organize his life, but discovered to his cost that life cannot be so easily controlled: the unexpected always arrives to disrupt even the best-laid plans. To a large extent he coped quite well with the troubles he encountered; but we always got the feeling that the "victory" he sought over life could never be attained.

Stylistically speaking, Pinter's screenplay was full of menace: we never knew what the pursuers' true motives were, nor did they really bother to explain themselves. Rather they contented themselves with the kind of banal conversational exchanges that seem meaningless on the surface, but conceal a variety of motives. Like Aston and Mick in "The Caretaker," both Jones and Ricardo were particularly sinister in their treatment of Lena, and their willful obliviousness to Heyst's point of view. They were certainly villains, but we never understood the cause of their villainy. This is Pinter's point; in life people seldom bother to account for themselves, but act according to the demands of the moment.

There was also something rather suspect about Lena as well. Initially appearing as a damsel-in-distress figure, welcoming Heyst's offer to rescue her from a life of drudgery in the orchestra, she did not seem particularly loyal to him. When faced with Ricardo's seductive charm (expressed in Strong's performance through a masterly delivery of sibilants) she transferred her favors towards him. While returning to Heyst's side at the end, we suspected that she did this because she felt she ought to, rather than out of any loyalty to him.

In this kind of amoral world, no one could really be guaranteed any hope of survival. Heyst had tried his best to resist it by setting himself up in an island paradise, but in the end this edenic existence proved as corruptible as any other. The only way to survive was by trying to respond as best one could to each and every situation; but even that did not guarantee long life. As the narrator, Beale delivered his lines in a cynical, detached manner, as if he somehow knew what the characters' fates might be.

"Victory" proved a highly unsettling production: set in the Dutch East Indies in 1900, it had some trenchant points to make about life in the so-called civilized contemporary world.