Sunday, 11 September 2016

'Giving the Author his Due' - Why Harold Pinter Matters.

Since the 90s, I have wandered around worlds of mental illness, relationship breakdowns, false memories and sinister aggressive figures, sometimes torturers, sometimes desperate game players. Every so-called victim, a potential bully in the making.  I have seen territories disputed and language condensed to the noise of silence.  Now pause...

In the 90s, I studied Harold Pinter's 'The Caretaker' for A-Level English and I was immediately struck by the language and content of the play.  I was lucky enough to see a production of 'The Caretaker' at the Comedy Theatre starring Donald Pleasence, Colin Firth and Peter Howitt.  It was directed by Pinter himself and he was in the audience watching with a young relative or friend on the day I saw the production with my mother.  In retrospect, you never forget your first Pinter production.

Pinter's plays are expressive visions of the human condition.  They do not always follow a coherent narrative strand but then nor do our lives.  By and large, there will always be one character that you can relate to, even if you cannot understand their motives or agendas.  Also one interesting aspect of Pinter's plays concerns those characters that you would not want to meet in daily life.  The most threatening characters can also be the most vulnerable.  Just as in life, power dynamics change as situations vary and people experience different needs.  

The language in Pinter's plays also serves to break down the apparent comfortable certainties of human communication.  The empty platitudes and endless repetitions.  Constant needless enquiries about the weather.  Filling time.  More intense subjects marked by pauses, either breakdowns or moments of extreme emotion.  Time to rearm, to reconsider the assumptions made.

The so-called 'Pinter pause' is often used to criticise the playwright's work but anyone who has ever sat in a restaurant and watched other diners will notice at least one couple, who are not communicating using words.  Yet the feeling of mutual distaste is conveyed through the silence.  This is not companionable silence, the comfortable feeling of knowing each other so well that words are not necessary.  Pauses are a natural and necessary aspect of conversation.  It's not always easy to think of what to say for the best.  I think the importance of Pinter's use of pauses is most apparent when you see the play performed.  On paper, they simply fragment the text.  On stage, you can see the body language of the actors as they convey the emotional states of the characters they are portraying.

I have seen so many memorable productions of Pinter's plays.  They can and should be performed in a myriad of locations.  I remember seeing 'The New World Order' at the Shoreditch Town Hall, which incorporated five of his plays ('Press Conference', 'One for the Road', 'Precisely', 'Mountain Language' and 'The New World Order' into one emotionally coherent immersive experience.  The audience was led around different areas of the building.  One of the plays was actually performed on a staircase.  The plays chosen were the most politically potent of Pinter's plays, although his plays always explored issues of power and its abuse.  He was a very vocal supporter of human rights, so his exploration of the complicity and occasional atrocities of human beings towards each other, are an understandable feature of his work.

To conclude, at one point after a rehearsed reading of 'Celebration' at a London Theatre, I hung around the stage door and obtained the autographs of the actors.  It was a veritable who's who of the acting scene including Michael Gambon and Joanna Lumley etc.  One of the actors took the playtext of 'Celebration' out of my hand and muttered the immortal line, 'Giving the author his due'.  I deeply respected this idea.  By buying the text, I was not only somehow contributing royalties to the playwright but also acknowledging the importance of his work.  If this blog entry is about nothing else, it is about encouraging people to read and see Pinter's work.  He really was one of the greatest playwrights.  Having seen him perform in a version of 'No Man's Land' in the 90s, I can also attest that he was a memorable actor too.

                                                                                           Barry Watt - 11th September 2016.


All of the plays listed in this blog are available in a variety of editions by both Faber and Faber and Methuen.  If you are interested in the plays of Harold Pinter, they are also available as four collected editions from Faber and Faber.  The copyrights to the plays are of course the properties of the respective holders.



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