Harold Pinter

With a double-bill of The Lover and The Collection currently in the West End and a new production of The Homecoming about to open at the Almeida, the work of Harold Pinter is enjoying plenty of exposure in London at the moment.

Mind you, his work has rarely been far from centre-stage, since the ex-actor burst onto the theatrical scene with his first plays in the late 50s. For those who can take their drama oblique and grimly funny, he’s a giant of British theatre.
One of the first Pinter plays I ever saw was No Man’s Land with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson at the newly-built National Theatre in 1976. While it was fascinating to see these two old knights of the theatre battling it out, a memory to savour, the play (in Peter Hall’s slightly stuffy staging) didn’t really resonate with me then and it wasn’t until the Almeida’s 1992 revival that the beauty and bizarre humour of the piece struck home. The latter had the advantage of Pinter himself playing the part of the incapacitated and forgetful writer Hirst, (Paul Eddington was Spooner) and a very good performance it was too.

On its premiere, Kenneth Tynan described No Man’s Land as “a pale piece, extremely discourteous in its disdainful treatment of the audience a needless aura of mystery full of surprises, but empty of purpose like a series of eccentric jottings from the commonplace book of a brilliant beginner” (Kenneth Tynan Diaries). As wise and brilliant as Tynan was, I think he was off course on this one (maybe the champagne socialist was so stuck on the need for social realism and political tub-thumping at this stage as well as full of hatred for the new National regime – that he couldn’t fully enter into the bourgeois enigma and anfractuous poetry that characterises this and all of Pinter’s work). Unlike some of the plays, No Man’s Land has improved with time and the script now reads like a dream (several star-laden revivals have confounded Tynan’s “I can’t imagine anyone begging to play these parts in twenty years’ time”). For those interested, there are some lengthy chunks available for viewing on Youtube, from the TV broadcast of the original production.

Last year, we were treated to a revival in the Lyttelton of Pinter’s early piece The Hothouse, set in an asylum on Christmas Day. It was an excellent production by Ian Rickson but the play, which began brilliantly, ultimately disappointed and this inability to follow-through has arguably marred a number of Pinter’s works. I can’t help feeling that way about The Homecoming, the first act of which is one of the funniest and most exciting pieces of post-war theatre but which fizzles out somewhat and doesn’t follow its promise through to the end.

In the plays of the 80s, there’s less scope for fading away because, like Beckett’s final works, they are such short pithy statements. Mountain Language, a series of vignettes set in an oppressive military state, is the most memorable of these doodles. Short bursts of Pinter haven’t always worked, the collation of sketches performed by the likes of Bill Bailey (Pinter’s People) at the Theatre Royal Haymarket last year pleasing almost no-one.

As already mentioned, Pinter is himself a fine actor and, for a handful of us lucky enough to see it, his portrayal of Beckett’s Krapp at the Royal Court upstairs in 2006 was an absolute treat. With only 10 performances in a venue holding 100, there was a real sense that this was something special a great playwright, albeit sadly debilitated by illness and confined to a motorised wheelchair, paying homage to a friend and greatly admired colleague.

An all-rounder, Pinter also has a number of directing credits on his CV. I personally didn’t like his direction of the Royal Court production of David Mamet’s Oleanna (1993), although his treatment of the text as though it were one of his own plays didn’t stop it being one of the most controversial talking points I’ve ever experienced in the theatre. Ironically, Mamet himself did the same thing with Beckett’s Catastrophe as part of the Channel 4 complete works, when he directed Pinter in Beckett’s most political play as though it were a Mamet text. It just didn’t work.

I don’t find myself bowled over by all of Pinter’s plays. I’ve never got on with The Birthday Party (due for another outing at Hammersmith’s Lyric in May), which feels creaky and dated now (and did a couple of decades ago). Old Times, despite some characteristically brilliant writing, qualifies for Tynan’s description of English Theatre as being “preoccupied with the minor emotional crises of the urban middle class” and the 1993 Moonlight was more notable for bringing Ian Holm back to the stage after a long absence than anything else. On the other hand, The Caretaker, a fairly early work (revived last year in Sheffield and brought to the Tricycle for a short run) is still a brilliantly entertaining work while Betrayal (most recently revived at the Donmar) is simply one of the best plays of recent times.

Reviews for the Lover/Collection double-bill at the Comedy are just in and indicate that this is a production well worth seeing. The Collection was memorably presented on TV by Olivier in the early 80s and this production can also be seen complete on Youtube.

The Homecoming has had its fair share of stagings, beginning in 1965 with largely the same cast (Paul Rogers, Ian Holm, Vivien Merchant) as Peter Hall’s film of a few years later through to a National production in 1997 (David Bradley, Michael Sheen), a West End run in 2001 (Holm again) and a production at the Royal Exchange, Manchester (Pete Postlethwaite) the following year. Last March, Pinter played the part of Max in a radio production. Now, at the Almeida, Michael Attenborough directs a cast led by Kenneth Cranham and Neil Dudgeon.

A couple of years ago, a populist theatre poll gave first place to Tom Stoppard as the Greatest Living Playwright. For me, there was no contest and the accolade should’ve gone to Pinter. I daresay the Nobel Prize for Literature, which followed shortly after, was some consolation.

The Lover/The Collection, currently booking through to May, is playing at the Comedy Theatre and the Almeida’s run of The Homecoming previews from 31 January and runs to 22 March 2008.

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