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Pause for Thought: Playing Pinter

What’s the appeal of being in Harold Pinter plays for so many actors, including Timothy West & Kenneth Cranham? With two major Pinter productions now opening, Michael Coveney discovers the pleasures, the pitfalls - & the pauses.

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These are busy times in the Harold Pinter industry, with new productions of The Homecoming at the Almeida, led by Kenneth Cranham as Max, and a double bill of The Lover and The Collection at the Comedy featuring Timothy West as Harry in The Collection. Both actors have history with Pinter, and both are relishing the chance to pick up advice from their mutual friend on roles he himself has played.

West played the 70-year-old Max in The Homecoming when he was just 43, in 1978, in a West End revival with Michael Kitchen as Lenny. Now a sprightly 73, he sees the chance of giving the middle-aged Harry in The Collection (which West saw on stage with Michael Hordern in the role in 1962) a much harder edge of anxiety over whether or not he will retain his hold over young Bill (Charlie Cox), who might or might not have had an affair in Leeds with a married woman.

Lines like notes

“The musical imperative is always the same with Harold,” says West. “You have to see the lines on a stave, almost, like notes. You certainly know whether a Pinter pause is too long or not long enough. And anyway, as Bernard Miles (the director and character actor who founded and ran the Mermaid Theatre) used to say, there’s really no such thing as a Pinter pause. There’s always something going on.”

Cranham concurs, pointing out that once you understand that the language in The Homecoming is a fantastic observation of London argot and idiom, twisted for dramatic effect – he cites Max saying “Listen, I’ve got a funny idea she’s gonna do the dirty on us” or “Look what I’m lumbered with. One cast-iron bunch of crap after another; one flow of stinking pus after another” – you don’t need to worry about its surprising faux-formality.

“These lines in the earlier plays,” he adds, “are related to writing at the time of the Lord Chamberlain, and the excitement of them comes partly from the fact that you can’t swear outright as in ordinary language. And yet they also sound exactly like something you’d hear on the street.”

This mini-fest of Pinter, part of an ongoing Pinter parade of the past few years, is confined to the early period. “His early plays really come from that background in Clapton and Hackney, and of course his marriage to Vivien Merchant was very important,” observes West. “But the dialect sort of changes with his marriage to Antonia Fraser in plays like Old Times and Landscape and Silence, becoming more lyrical and memorial, with the old style breaking through to great effect.”

No map to follow

Much of the critical writing about Pinter, outside of Michael Billington’s magisterial authorised biography, ignores the basic theatrical dynamics and structure of his plays. It takes actors to see how they really work. Ian McDiarmid, for instance, the former co-director of the Almeida, says “the reason actors like his plays is that there isn’t a map. It’s true of all good plays. After a while, they show you how to do them.”

And Timothy West himself, in a delightful autobiography, once defined that unique sense you get of having “dropped in” on a Pinter play: “Pinter treats us as eavesdroppers, listening in on a conversation and witnessing behaviour the background to which we can only guess... the ordinary playwright makes sure you know more about the characters than they know about themselves. Pinter wants us to know less.”

If you ask Pinter a silly question, such as what is this or that play “about” you get a silly answer, such as his famous “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet” response in an early interview. Actors in a working situation, however, are often given great hints about their characters in the form of notes.

Cranham – who so liked playing the lobotomised Aston in The Caretaker at the National Theatre that he asked to go off and play it straight away again in another production (he didn’t, in fact) – was told by Pinter that, at the beginning of the play, Aston hasn’t talked to anyone for ten tears and at the end he wasn’t going to speak to anyone for another 20! “It’s a fantastic note. I’ve never been to see another Aston, but I met Con O'Neill who played him recently at the Tricycle and he said, ‘Christ, I wish he’d told me that!’ He was very put out, though I hear he was very good anyway. Aston is incomplete business for me, really. I hadn’t finished the sculpting I was doing.”

A collection of interviews, Pinter in the Theatre, published by Nick Hern Books three years ago, caught the nitty-gritty of Pinter’s presence in the rehearsal room, and the strange chameleon quality of his writing. Roger Lloyd Pack, who has played alongside Pinter on many occasions, as well as appearing as the dim boxer Joey in that 1978 The Homecoming with Timothy West, says: “The characters live independently of what he is trying to say. So when you get to play them you have a wonderful amount of freedom.”

The Homecoming – which has lately been acclaimed all over again on Broadway in a production starring our own Ian McShane and Eve Best – sealed the playwright’s reputation in 1965, seven years after the controversial, critically mauled opening of The Birthday Party. And that debut play’s half-century is celebrated in May in a revival at the Lyric Hammersmith, the venue where it closed after eight performances, taking just £260, 11 shillings and five pence at the box office.

Respect for actors & cricketers

One of the hallmarks of the current Pinter renaissance – which dates, I suppose, from the premiere of Moonlight at the Almeida in 1993 – is the ubiquity of the Nobel Prize-winning (in 2005) Pinter himself as director, actor, adviser, visiting sage and grand old man, even as he battles, now aged 77, against failing health and recovers from bouts of cancer, a rare auto-immune disorder and weak legs.

“As a body of people, I respect actors more than I respect any other body,” he once said, “oh yes, apart from cricketers.” And the actors return the compliment by treasuring his advice and relishing the chance to work with him while he’s still around.

In 2006 Pinter appeared, poignantly, in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape at the Royal Court, a sort of Proustian valedictory of a writer holed up with his fading manuscripts. Was this the start of a farewell tour, or a statement of intent to exploit the back catalogue? Yes and no, perhaps. One thing is certain. Pinter is not going gently into that great dark night. Last year alone he recorded The Homecoming on radio, playing Max, and hovered beneficently over four major projects: The Hothouse at the National, Pinter's People at the Haymarket, The Dumb Waiter at Trafalgar Studios and Betrayal at the Donmar Warehouse.

And as well as the two new revivals at the Almeida and the Comedy, Soho Theatre is presenting Being Harold Pinter, which includes a re-run of a remarkable Nobel Prize acceptance speech in which Pinter averred that grim reality can serve as a spur to the lives of citizens, and the work of actors, who have to live with the consequences of politicians’ power: “To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.”

The Lover and The Collection double bill opens on 29 January 2008 (previews from 15 January) at the Comedy Theatre for a season to 3 May. The Homecoming runs at the Almeida Theatre from 7 February (previews from 31 January) to 22 March. Being Harold Pinter is at Soho Theatre on 14 to 23 February (previews from 11 February). The 50th anniversary production of The Birthday Party runs at Lyric Hammersmith from 12 to 24 May (previews from 12 May). In addition, a new exhibition, His Own Domain: Harold Pinter, a Life in Theatre is on display in the British Library until 13 April 2008.

A longer version of this article appears in the February issue of What’s On Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), which will be out this Friday in participating theatres. To guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!


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