Harold Pinter has exited the room.
There can’t be too many theatre lovers who aren’t aware of the great man’s passing on Christmas Eve 2008 after a long, ravaging illness. A seminal playwright for the late 20th century, Nobel Laureate, actor and latterly an activist, Pinter never lost his anger which bubbled to the surface most obviously during the last 20 years of a crusade against the violence of war. Whilst rage, fear, hurt, delight, and thinly-veiled barbarity are palpable in the carefully groomed text of his plays, you know the disgust and the disquiet driving the action are focussed, as was the anger in the man himself, on outing systemic violence.
I recall working on a production of Old Times in the mid-1970s for Queensland Theatre Company. We were a company of three actors under the direction of Alan Edwards, then also Artistic Director for the company. Old Times was for us a fascinating, always challenging assignment; you felt that in this play more than in ones by other writers that there was something more to be discovered, something out there on the edge and about to slip away, or perhaps something even missing from it all. And perhaps this elusiveness would defeat you, leave you stranded wondering what the hell was going on.
The sense of a vacuum waiting to be filled is panic-inducing for an actor, and there can be much to panic an actor working on a Pinter. The directions Pause and Silence which pepper his scripts are the most obvious signs in this landscape of disquiet and emptiness, and they always, always poke at the core of the actor’s process. You have to dig into those layers to find the currents in the deep waters of the text and its inhabitants. It has to be said also that in the mid 1970s Pinter on the mainstage of the state theatre company was also what we call ‘edgy’ today. It was a leap of faith in the audiences. It’s hard to believe now, but one of the real concerns was whether or not audiences would ‘get it.’ Rehearsals were hard going at times, but oh it was ultimately good stuff.
Pinter’s plays were always a thrill to explore … and I use the word ‘explore’ deliberately. The nuances of his seemingly flat speech, the anger that drove so many of the exchanges, the challenge of creating a back-story that worked for you, and how to manage with integrity the meaning of those wretched ‘pauses’ and ‘silences’ were tasks worked through daily on the floor. Is a pause shorter than a silence? How long should they be? Should they be timed for performance? … all of these seemingly trivial questions ranged round the rehearsal room. Ultimately the precision of the text with its pauses and silences are clues by the playwright to get you digging deeper into the dynamics of character, relationships … the play’s action. What was missing, that panic-y feeling of something else ‘out there’ was of course, what you had to find as an actor, and bring to the performance. Pause and Silence were no more than signposts along the way.
Old Times is a play of memory and truth … among other things! One line still resonates for me: ‘As I recall it, so it happened.’ It’s one of the more intriguing ‘truths’ I’ve learned via a playwright, and it’s stayed with me for the 30 or so years since I discovered it in the playing. In these terms then, how fluid, how indefinable, but right somehow, and ultimately how lonely are our individual truths.
Andrew Eglinton has written a lovely and very personal reflection on Pinter over at London Theatre Blog. I do recommend it. You’ll also find the transcript of Pinter’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech and a video of the speech in Andrew’s post on LTB. There are also heaps of notices, obituaries and tributes to him below.