LETTERS TO EDITOR
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Harold Pinter Festival
A part of Lincoln Center Festival 2001
A Kind of Alaska | One for the Road | The Homecoming | Landscape | Monologue | The Room | Celebration | Mountain Language | Ashes to Ashes ...and some Pinter links
Harold Pinter is a playwright we think of as easy to describe but difficult to explain. Three characteristics are invariably attributed to his plays: "Pinteresque" pauses, comedically-delivered menace and enigma. All three usually combine to create a thrillingly discombobulating theater-going experience. As Pinter has said, famously, "I can sum up none of my plays. I can describe none of them, except to say: That is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did." What is actually true and false, real and not, cannot be known. Life is not susceptible to the sort of easy exposition we find in many other playwright's work; in this sense, Pinter's can be seen as the most naturalistic of them all.
The organizers of the Pinter Festival at Lincoln Center, confronted with a canon that now exceeds thirty theatrical works -- with over 40 separate pieces -- not to mention another twenty or so screenplays, have chosen carefully, so as to let its parts enrich the whole. They have gone further by inviting three theater companies from England and Ireland with strong ties to the interpretation of Pinter's plays to execute them. Pinter's personal involvement in the process, as an actor and a director, affords further enlightenment still.
A Kind of Alaska is, on the surface at least, atypical Pinter. Inspired by Awakenings, by Oliver Sacks, M.D., it presents Deborah (Penelope Wilton), a woman who fell asleep at age 16 and remained in that state for 29 years. Hornby (Stephen Brennan), the doctor who has ministered to her throughout this period, has given her an injection of a new drug. She wakes up, possessed of memories, some from long ago, others from the machinations of her mind while asleep. What she knows of the "reality& of the last 29 years is based only on what is related to her by Hornby and her sister, Pauline (Brid Brennan), who later enters her room. "Shall I tell her lies or the truth?" Pauline asks Hornby. "Both," he responds.
Deborah is the sort of role that has a magnetic appeal to an actress, affording an opportunity to translate a generation of memory into a striking physical performance. (Judi Dench's established the footprint with her portrayal in Peter Hall's 1982 staging at London's National Theatre.) Wilton is thrilling, in a performance that combines vacancy, suspicion, fear, uncertainty and joy. The two Brennan's deliver nuanced performances with pin-point accuracy under Karel Reisz's painstaking direction. Liz Ascroft's simple set makes a trenchant but unobtrusive comment with a floor forming a raked perspective.
Alaska causes Pinter's usual themes to reverberate, its 29 year pause begetting a myriad of mysteries on both sides of the divide and in turn revealing a sort of malevolence that is never acted out, existing only in the mind. It's a wonderful platform from which to commence our examination.
Malevolence of the overt variety quickly rears its ugly head in One for the Road. Here Pinter portrays the roguish Nicholas, a government inquisitor. He engages members of a family, husband Victor (Lloyd Hutchinson), wife Gila (Indira Varma) and young son Nicky (Rory Copus) seriatim, not so much to elicit facts as to administer brutality. And the sense of terror is visited upon the audience with uncommon force. It's the menace of the unknown that's at play, and we are not told very much.
The setting appears to be a police state, the affront that precipitates the family's arrest unstated -- it seems to center on the boy. This is the kind of theater that alternately makes one cringe and gasp -- at one point, a woman behind me shrieked a quite audible, and genuine, "Oy Vey". We see the effects of the physical abuse being meted out, but it is the psychological abuse that is most harrowing.
The performances are extraordinary. Pinter mixes his unsympathetic provocativeness with a sickeningly saccharine affability, lubricated with ample quantities of whiskey that appears to insulate but not weaken his ruthlessness. From Hutchinson, we get belligerent anxiety; from Varma, fragile resignation; and from the young man, punchy innocence. Robin Lefevre directs with somber assurance that nonetheless permits Pinter's casual flippancy to work its black magic.
Pinter has been vocal extra-theatrically on the subject toward which Road is directed. This is a bitter but powerful pill.
There is no indication that the organizers intended a "centerpiece" for the Pinter Festival, but it certainly appears that in The Homecoming, they have one. (It happens that it's the only full-length play among the nine on display.) On virtually every level, this shimmering staging pays homage to its playwright.
At the foundation, of course, is Pinter's wonderful script, a familiar construct populated with odd man-world characters. An aging widower, Max (Ian Holm), is the head of a North London household consisting of two of his sons, Lenny (Ian Hart) and Joey (Jason O'Mara), both unmarried, as well as his bachelor brother, Sam (John Kavanaugh). Into this mix returns a third son, Teddy (Nick Dunning), who left six years ago, got married and hasn't been heard from since. He arrives at the homestead in the middle of the night with a woman, his wife, Ruth (Lia Williams), in tow.
From here, things go from bad to perhaps better, on to worse and thence to what we can only hope is the surreal. Max has by this point already proven himself short-tempered and irascible, yet in spurts he is grudgingly, deludedly sentimental and romantic; he is almost always hysterically funny. Of his dead wife: "Even though it made me sick just to look at her rotten stinking face, she wasn't such a bad bitch." Ian Holm is impossibly delicious, reigning over the men like a wounded, atrabilious rooster. Holm's last appearance in New York was as Lenny in the Tony-winning premiere of The Homecoming; his remarkable performance is a measure of what we have been missing since.
We've seen Lia Williams much more recently, when she co-starred with Michael Gambon in David Hare's Skylight, and, good as she was then, she's better still here. Her Ruth, played as if Marilyn Monroe were suddenly resurrected with oodles of acting ability, not only gives flight to the brothers' fantasies but further succeeds in maintaining the baffling nature of all sorts of sexual chemistries. Her physical performance is a sight to behold.
As husband Teddy, Dunning has the play's most difficult feat, which is to play out Pinter's character without telegraphing any more than Pinter wants us to know (which is, naturally, not much). He succeeds in this and every other demand, polishing his evident discomfort as he occludes whatever it is that lies beneath his marital state and endures a series of assaults on his self esteem with little more affect than a disingenuous Hugh Downs smile.
Hart and O'Mara are perhaps less satisfying than their colleagues, but under Robin Lefevre's meticulous direction, acutely matched in physical performance to Pinter's language. John Kavanaugh's faultless Sam is executed in its own minor key, never overstepping but giving rise to the feeling that one is watching a production as finely tuned in its detail as an expensive Swiss chronograph.
The Almeida production of The Room, Pinter's very first play, paired with Celebration (see below), his most recent, is most interesting for the context it establishes. It not only permits us to consider the foundation on which Pinter built, but also exposes us to another facet of Pinter's theatrical contribution, since he has directed this production. (With this, we have seen, within the Festival, Pinter as playwright, actor and director.)
This is an intact transfer of the London staging reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge in London as linked below. I won't repeat the details related in the other review, to which your attention is directed, as it does a fine job of summarizing the play. What seems more fascinating at the moment is contemplating the reaction to it in 1957, when Pinter's name was unknown, and the word "Pinteresque" had yet to be coined. (The reaction to it was limited -- it was a college production -- but apparently negative, as it was for Pinter's next offering, seen in the West End but closing quickly and unceremoniously, The Birthday Party.)
The play opens on Rose (Lindsay Duncan, in a terrific performance) and Bert (Steven Pacey) in their home, a one-room affair. For the first fifteen or so minutes, Rose chatters endlessly as Bert eats breakfast, never saying a word, even in response to her questions. It's an uncomfortable silence, establishing little more of substance than that Rose seems to find security in her shelter, seemingly a fortress against intruders. She's unaffected by Bert's lack of reaction to her presence, and agitated only by the weather outside and the prospect of Bert going out into it. The landlord, Mr. Kidd (Henry Woolf, Pinter's friend and interpreter, who directed the original production of this play and gives a wonderfully quirky performance here), enters, carrying on an inane conversation with Rose (as Bert persists in oblivious silence). Room-as-shelter proves unsatisfactory, however: the intrusion of two strangers, the Sands (Lia Williams and Keith Allen), bring a new nervousness to Rose, escalating when they mention a man in the basement (she's been curious about what's down there all along) who says her room is for rent. A further intruder into Rose's haven, Riley (George Harris), who has been waiting for her in the basement, brings further consternation. Bert walks in on them, speaks for the first time about the icy roads as Rose becomes the silent one and then attacks Riley (who is blind). Rose cries that she cannot see. The play blacks out.
All of Pinter's elements are in place, methodically, his language and its rhythms as precise as they will ever be. Whatever to make of the silence, the menace, the enigma. It's unsettling, rendered all the more so by its lack of explanation. Pinter is born.
After The Room, Celebration presents such a starkly different setting -- an upscale restaurant inhabited by a well-to-do clientele -- that one might be inclined to view it as a sign that Pinter's life in the intervening forty-odd years has shifted his focus. So it is interesting to learn that the source material for the play derives not from dining out in fancy restaurants a lot, but from an experience the playwright had long before he wrote his first play, back in the days when, like many young theater people, he was a waiter. It's also informing that, stripped of the superficial, the play's characters are not all that different.
What begins as light table patter -- we see two tables: two couples celebrating an anniversary at one; a younger couple, a banker and his wife, at the other -- soon develops some sharp edges. There's a great deal more talking all around here, but it's not clear there's any more listening. In many respects, the couples seem to be as unaware and unsure of each other as are Teddy and Ruth in The Homecoming. Later, one of the waiters (Danny Dyer) "interjects" himself (to enormous comic effect) into the conversations. That's precisely what Pinter himself did in the late 40's -- and he was abruptly fired.
There's no doubt that Celebration shows some differences from Pinter's early plays. It's written (and staged here by the playwright) in a "cinematic" style that doesn't exist in the other plays. And the absurdist intrusions by the waiter are brought back to a certain reality, with a coda featuring Dyer alone onstage speaking to the audience.
Celebration is funny, biting and well-written -- Pinter remains in command of language and timing in wonderful ways, and several of the performances are utterly delicious. But it terms of power, it lacks much that made Pinter's greatest plays memorable. For further details, see Lizzie Loveridge's London review linked below.
Landscape, directed by Karel Reisz, surprisingly, may seem a bit obscure and less obvious to audiences schooled in recent works of Pinter, such as Betrayal and One For the Road. This is vintage Pinter, written in 1967.
A one-act, no more than 35-minutes in length, Landscape opens with Beth (Penelope Wilton) and Duff (Stephen Brennan) sitting at opposite ends of a rather formidable, wooden breakfast table, facing the audience. Although Duff always seems ready to engage Beth more personally, neither actually speaks to the other. Their monologues alternate, functioning as fragments of a running exchange perhaps once spoken and long forgotten, or perhaps merely thought. The table symbolizes their isolation. He expresses the pain of their separation in anecdotes; she, in fantasies and reverie. She remains stoic, perhaps even removed, while delivering her incantation of yearning and sorrow. He, on the other hand, remains more down to earth, less sure of himself, and quicker to anger. Stephen Brennan captures the essence of Pinter's peculiarly maimed males.
Penelope Wilton, as in A Kind of Alaska, delivers an astonishing performance. Reisz directs both with exquisite precision. Pinter's words fill the theatre, creating at times an atmosphere of almost unbearable alarm.
Mountain Language, clocking in at under twenty minutes and thus the shortest piece in the Festival, bangs on the same drum heard in One for the Road, but more loudly. Again, we find ourselves in a police state, but this time the terror is more generic. A group of women from the "mountains" wait in the cold to see their imprisoned husbands and sons, harassed verbally by guards and physically by Dobermans. (One elderly woman (Gabrielle Hamilton) has been bitten.) They are forbidden to speak their native tongue. Only the language of the unnamed capital may be uttered. (It is said the Turkish treatment of Kurds is Pinter's inspiration for the piece.) One outspoken woman (Anastasia Hille) is not even from the mountains -- her husband is there in what seems to be a bureaucratic snafu.
The harrowing nature of the production is delivered environmentally. The Pinter plays have been presented with a minimum of background sound: most don't credit a sound designer. But Mountain Language features harsh sounds throughout -- helicopters, clanging prison doors, guns -- that are as chilling as the snow that is falling as the play begins. The lighting is stark and insistent; the set is a study in blackness: each scene begins and ends by having the frame in which it is set close in on all sides.
Pinter's overt object is underscored by the play's consideration of language and communication. The guards demand the dog's name: the edict is that a dog must state its name before biting. When the elderly woman is permitted to see her son (Paul Hilton), she is not allowed to speak in the mountain language. Yet when the rule is changed and she is permitted to speak, she is silent. After two weeks of visiting Pinter's linguistic, silence-filled garden, the audience is left speechless. The pause between this play and Ashes to Ashes has been filled with the sight and sound of verdant branches filled with wind-filled leaves.
At first blush, Ashes to Ashes seems a questionable choice for inclusion in the Festival. It is not a particularly impressive play, and it's the only one that has been seen recently in New York. (Our review of the Roundabout production of 1999 is linked below.) Yet coming as it does at the end of the Festival, it makes perfect sense.
Here we have Pinter's revenge for anyone who comes away from his plays begging for an explanation of the characters' motivations. Lots of meanings are supplied; the question is which ones to believe.
A couple, Devlin (Neil Dudgeon) and Rebecca (Anastasia Hille), have a forty-five minute long conversation in what one takes to be their living room. Prompted in large part by her revelation of a past affair, it's filled with non-sequiturs -- especially when a question is probling -- and passive aggression. The other man, if he existed -- one never knows, was sado-masochistic. Or does he represent her recollection of past horrors: sirens, people being walked into the water to their death, a baby being taken away by a man? (Nazi Germany?) Pinter goes out of his way to be explicit in ways that seem alien to what we know of his playwriting, but it's still anyone's guess what's real.
Reference to the review of the Roundabout production reveals a host of ideas, many related to purported meaning of various design elements. These won't aid the audience of this production much: it's bereft of all of those elements.
Toward the play's end, a fascinating c'ïncidence (one supposes) occurs. Rebecca asks "What baby?" It's a line echoed verbatim in the latest play of another master of enigma and frustrator of audiences: Edward Albee. Albee's been criticized for parroting Pinter before, but I prefer to think of it as something more fundamental to the work of both. What what?
So we bring to an end our visit with Pinter, having viewed him from front to back, top to bottom and now inside out. The examination leaves his fans enthralled, his detractors appalled. Do we have a better understanding of the playwright? Yes. His plays? Not a chance.
Review of Ashes to Ashes at the Roundabout
Reviews of Room and Celebration in London
Reviews of Betrayal in New York, London and the Berkshires
Review of The Caretaker in London
Review of Pinter's co-adaptation of Remembrance of Things Past
Feature on Beckett, Pinter and Albee