Saturday, 20 February 2010
The limits of language
I once heard Harold Pinter read. It must have been in the early 1980s. The occasion was a CND benefit and it took place, I think, in Kensington Town Hall. Numerous poets were reading and Harold Pinter's name came some way down the list. However, as soon as I entered the hall I realised that the Longford clan was out in support. I wasn't sure whether they were backing CND or their new son-in-law but they were very noticeable, perhaps because of the aristocratic confidence with which they took possession of their area of the hall. I watched with curiosity. I didn't recognize Pinter himself. I rather expected him to look and sound like a character in one of his plays - perhaps Aston in The Caretaker.
Plenty of poets read before Pinter. It was a difficult audience - more interested in nuclear disarmament than in poetry - and the hall itself made it hard to achieve intimate effects, though Ivor Cutler drew the audience together with his surreal wit. By the time Pinter's turn came, about half the audience were sneaking glances at their watches.
I hadn't realised Pinter had been an actor but he knew how to command an audience. His voice surprised me with its richness and I was startled by his choice of reading. After a number of poets reading their own work, Pinter chose to introduce and read John Donne's "Nocturnal upon St. Lucie's Day." I think it may be the best reading of a poem I have ever heard. It also changed my view of Harold Pinter. I realised that this playwright, most famous for his pauses, had a deep love and understanding of the music and meaning of language.
I haven't seen many Pinter plays so when the opportunity came, through this blog, to see A Pair of Pinters at the Guildhall in Derby, I couldn't resist the opportunity. I had two worries: were my expectations too high? and would my back injury prevent me from concentrating? I chose a matinée perfomance as the discomfort worsens in the evening.
I knew I was right to attend before a word was spoken. I was not just comfortable in my seat - and that's become an important consideration in the past five weeks. I felt the kind of comfort that comes from seeing actors who are secure in their roles, the production and with one another - and who communnicate that security to the audience. I sat back in my chair and prepared to be unsettled.
Two men talked, joked, and argued while waiting for a message from a third, who did not appear. The echoes of Waiting for Godot were unmissable at first - The Dumb Waiter was written two years after the London premiere of Beckett's play - but Pinter's characters have less freedom than Beckett's. Ben and Gus are enclosed in a windowless room. They may be disturbed by the series of jobs they are required to perform but they never question the obedience required. At most Gus (James Holmes) complains and Ben (Joe Tucker) betrays his anxiety by threatening Gus. It would be possible to suggest that the play means more than it says or shows but I think the best way of enjoying it is to enter the world of the play, laugh at the jokes and to let the memory of it resonate later.
After the interval comes the much later play, A Kind of Alaska, set in another enclosed room. There are no mirrors and presumably, once again, no windows since Deborah, the central character, cannot see her reflection. But while the characters in The Dumb Waiter inhabit a violent world, kindness and love cause pain in the later play. Deborah has woken after a 29-year sleep - she suffers from Encephalitis. In her mind she hovers between childhood and adolescence but and cannot quite understand that her younger sister is suddenly middle-aged. Julia Tarnoky is luminous and heart-breaking as Deborah, stretching out urgent, awkward hands and evoking the lost promise of her teenage years. Simon Molloy and Eunice Roberts as Hornby and Pauline are gently self-controlled as they try to work out how much reality the newly-woken Deborah can bear.
I was struck in these plays by the small range of language with which Pinter does so much. Every word counts and repeated words and phrases add depth and complexity. But both plays also reach through language to areas for which there are no words, for which the immediate human response may be a prickle on the spine or the ache behind the eyes when tears are unshed.
Thank you, Esther Richardson, for posting on my blog to offer tickets - and for directing these plays.