Playwright’s silences speak

Featured Player: Harold Pinter

To experience Harold Pinter’s plays and his singular dramatic tactics is to feel a deep acquaintanceship with the writer. Is there any other dramatist alive who can make silence so voluble or language so charged?

This is just one reason why Pinter’s unexpected Nobel Prize in literature seemed particularly fitting coming the same week he turned 75. Rather than retiring gently from view, Pinter remains active, still prodding, sometimes irritating and always intriguing those who dare to step into his chosen terrain.

By way of proof, there were Pinter’s sonorous tones, that distinctive baritone not mutedby the esophageal cancer the playwright has been battling for nearly four years. The occasion was the premiere Oct. 10 (his birthday) on BBC Radio 3 of the aptly titled “Voices,” a half-hour dramatic distillation of five Pinter plays. Encompassing his more overtly political writings (“Party Time” and “Ashes to Ashes” included), the piece is an aural mosaic of dread, intimidation and torture scored to the music of composer James Clarke.

The nine actors include theauthor. And what role does Pinter give himself? Voice 8, a recapitulation of some of the fiercer passages culled from his 1984 play “One From the Road”:

“Have they been raping you? How many times? How many times have you been raped? How many times? This is my big finger. And this is my little finger. Look. I wave them in front of your eyes. Like this. How many times have you been raped?”

The language is brutal and blunt and, as spoken by its creator, eerily hypnotic, in the familiar manner of those passages midway through “Betrayal,” when two men are ostensibly discussing nothing more substantive than a game of squash. But to hear Pinter speak his interrogation is to encounter that rare conflation of form and content: Whereas Alan Bennett’s spry, sweet-faced persona is often at odds with the anger and despair that define his work, Pinter’s deep-voiced cadences simply cannot be separated from the cruelty that is his subject.

The result is to play down the darkly comic legacy that remains an equal part of Pinter’s bequest.

Peter Hall, who has directed numerous Pinter premieres, spoke to Variety recently of “the many attempts to bring poetry and metaphor back to the theater, where they’re often applied, like sequins.” By contrast, Hall argues that Pinter is the genuine article, which makes the playwright’s renewed voice more moving still.

Though his playwriting days may now be over (“I’ve written 29 plays,” he has said. “Isn’t that enough?”), the scribe has of late found a home on radio and treading the boards as an actor: a circular journey back to his early years trawling provincial repertory as a young thesp by the name of David Baron.

“Harold is very aware of his own mortality,” says Helen McCrory, who shone two summers ago in a Donmar revival of “Old Times.” What better defense against encroaching darkness, in that case, than to bring to life the words of Beckett, as Pinter will do next year in a Royal Court remounting of “Krapp’s Last Tape”?

If Pinter’s Nobel lifts the spirits, it’s because it reminds us that a man who has done his share of staring down the void will late in life not be silenced.

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