Mildly rebuking his wife for a lack of knowledge of his writing, an amusingly gruff Michael Byrne draws himself up in his chair and announces, “I’ve been engaged on the dimensionality and continuity of space … and time … for years.” The prescience of that line is striking. Dating from 1958, it comes from “A Slight Ache,” Pinter’s third play, yet it also serves as a defining theme for most of the Nobel laureate’s 29 plays, not least “A Kind of Alaska,” which opens this Gate’s cunningly conceived but slightly underpowered double-bill.
The action of 1982’s “Alaska” couldn’t be simpler. A woman awakens from sleep, finds herself in bed in unfamiliar circumstances and struggles with the news a bedside doctor imparts: She has been asleep for 29 years.
What charges up the drama is the dislocation between what Deborah (Anna Calder-Marshall) thinks of her immediate past — a fairly happy girlhood — and her real past as witnessed by her doctor (Niall Buggy) and her sister Pauline (Diana Hardcastle), who have cared for her unseeing, unspeaking self for three decades.
If the scenario sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it is directly inspired by Oliver Sacks’ study “Awakenings.” Pinter, as might be expected, was far less interested in either the medical or documentary aspects of emerging from a catatonic state, producing the tour de force role of a woman grappling with the collision of past and present.
Originally created by Judi Dench and subsequently reinterpreted by, among others, Dianne Wiest and, most recently, Penelope Wilton, the role is demanding because of the multiple levels of reality the character must inhabit. Calder-Marshall’s strongest suit is her ability to conjure the sunny 16-year-old she left behind. Her overt girlishness, alas, flattens the proceedings.
Part of the problem is that she’s too old for the role. Deborah should be in her mid-40s. Casting Calder-Marshall, who is a decade older, not only confuses matters, it lends her character the unhelpful suggestion of senility. As a result, we feel her bafflement at her predicament but never the terror that amnesiacs experience as they realize their reality fails to match that of those around them.
Directors Claire Lovett and Thea Sharrock fall into the trap of attempting to give everything equal weight. Buggy’s doctor has been encouraged to use the same overly deliberate, measured rhythm as his patient. That may fit with the notion of a sensitive professional, but it means energy keeps draining out of Paul Wills’ calm hospital-room set. And there are worryingly empty, unnecessarily ponderous moments when it feels as if the actor, rather than his character, is at a loss.
Pinter’s dreamy evocation of memories produces prose so spare it deliquesces into poetry. His best writing pulls you simultaneously in opposite directions. This production, however, seems to fly in the face of engrossing ambiguity by attempting to pin down memories and moments. Which is why the earlier, more straightforward “A Slight Ache” comes off better.
Edward (Michael Byrne) can’t relax with his wife, Flora (Diana Hardcastle), in the garden of his comfortable country house because there’s a dodgy-looking matchseller loitering just beyond the gate. As Edward is one of those elderly English types who enjoy nothing so much as being grumpy, his wife indulges him by bringing the silent matchseller into the house. Swiftly, however, mildly beady questioning turns into bewildering interrogation.
Byrne delivers the performance of the night, darkening from a curmudgeonly but benign boffin in pale linen to a lean and fierce verbal assailant. He vividly grasps Pinter’s point about the weakness of a man who barks authority but hasn’t a leg to stand on.
Yet the arresting vigor of his interpretation — and that of Hardcastle, who positively quivers with sexual arousal as she also interrogates the hapless matchseller — points up a bigger problem. The play’s themes of interrogation, power struggles and female sexual friction reached fuller flower in Pinter masterpieces like “The Caretaker,” “The Homecoming” and “Old Times.” That makes this double-bill of interest chiefly to trend-spotting theater historians. Newcomers are likely to come away with the sense of a good recipe rather undercooked.