Now a whole evening of Pinter

Commuting days until retirement: 518

For my homeward commute I sometimes get a different train to a nearby town, where my wife and I spend the evening in a small theatre which can put on some pretty good productions. Seats are not reserved so we can settle in the front row, sometimes right at the feet of the actors. When I was younger I probably would have found this rather unsettling – but now I love it. The standard is high – I don’t think we’ve ever seen a dud performance there.

After my one minute of Pinter in the previous post, I watched tonight’s actors tackling the demanding task of a double bill – two one-act plays (different actors in each). These were A Kind of Alaska, inspired by Oliver Sacks’s book Awakenings, and Landscape, which you might think of as more like ‘classic’ Pinter. I was looking forward to the first particularly, but in the end it was Landscape that seemed to take a bigger hold on me. The audience was unusually small – maybe 40 or so – was it the cold weather? I don’t know – this isn’t a town where you’d expect Pinter to be shunned. But perhaps that added to the intensity.

For Alaska, what stood out was a gutsy and compelling performance by the central character, Deborah, who is woken by the drug from 29 years of suspended animation.  In the course of 50 minutes she passes from unconsciousness through confusion and rehearsal of memories whose relation with the present is puzzling to her, to realisation of her state, and an eventual foreshadowing of a return to catatonia. There are two other characters on stage – the doctor and the patient’s sister, whom the doctor has married. Pinter thereby links them all together, not admitting into the play any character who is professionally detached, or above the fray. And so these characters’ weaknesses are on display too, showing at times a positively accusatory attitude to the patient for what she has put them all through – and this seems grimly believable.


Landscape was shorter – 40 minutes, more like Pinter in lacking any  such concrete dramatic situation, but no less intense. It’s a dialogue (well, two intertwined monologues, really) between two married characters. Throughout the play she faces away from him, and seems immune to his half-hearted overtures towards her, the offered drink untouched.  The picture I found of another production gives an idea – although our wife looked rather more demure than this one. Meanwhile she describes a series of mildly erotic encounters – with another man, it seems (I wasn’t entirely sure, and, looking it up, am reassured to find Wikipedia isn’t either.)  Her descriptions alternate and sometimes overlap his more earthbound experiences involving pubs, dogs, drinking and sometimes his wife. The landscape of the title I take to be both literal and metaphorical – the literal landscapes, seemingly quite separate, in which their respective accounts are set, and the entirely different mental landscapes they inhabit.

So what was it that grabbed me? Probably what usually does it for me with Pinter – what I think of as his verbal ballet. A stylised dance, unlike real conversation in most aspects, performed on so many levels: the meanings of the words and phrases, the images, the intertwining in time of the successive speeches, the changes of mood. In this play, the man makes attempts to speak to the woman, which she entirely ignores. On the other hand, his narrative is entirely unrelated to anything she says, but, if I wasn’t mistaken, hers sometimes obliquely takes cues from him. And I love the way Pinter’s raw materials are all commonplace descriptions and expressions – the plays are rather like fantastical sculptures built out of good old ordinary, solid bricks. At one point the husband launches into an impassioned and painstaking account of how beer is stored and dispensed, which sounds absolutely authentic. I remember one play (was it The Caretaker?) where there is a detailed description of the 38 bus route in North London. I lived near the area at the time, and knew it was accurate.

I was wondering recently about the differences and similarities with Samuel Beckett.  Beckett I have always found to be far less approachable, and (dare I utter such heresy?) even a little pretentious. I’ve seen a video of Breath – 30 seconds of heavy breathing accompanied by a heap of rubbish, and I’ve been to a production of Happy Days, when (was it Peggy Ashcroft?) is buried up to the neck in earth, while her companion reads out the inscription on the back of a toothbrush.  And I’ve seen a novel that seemed unreadable. I’ve also seen Waiting for Godot, and Krapp’s Last Tape. I find them all opaque. If there is symbolism it seems overworked – but of course you’re never sure whether there is. Pinter’s subtlety and lightness of touch is absent. Probably a blind spot on my part, especially as Pinter himself admired Beckett. So I have added another video demonstrating this, but I don’t find it helps my unbelief.

But apart from that…

Commuting days until retirement: 521

One train activity I missed out in the last post was just simply talking on the phone. (Sometimes now it is easy to forget that a phone is still, well, a phone.) While people do text a lot on trains, which is considerate, and much better for the readers, like me, there are still those whose intimate domestic arrangements – or, worse, work problems – are offered up to the whole carriage.

I must admit I did once get a bit of unfair entertainment from a woman opposite me, who had the task of getting someone in her office to do something urgent that she would have been doing herself, had she been there. However it was obvious that this needed a more than elementary knowledge of how to work some application on the computer, and that the person at the other end she had to instruct was fairly slow on the uptake. Just as, with infinite patience, she was on the point of getting a result with some part of the task, the train would go into a tunnel and contact would be lost. I have never seen such a study in repressed frustration. As everyone else around stared out of the window, buried themselves in their books, or did anything to appear not to be listening, she looked likely to get up and kick us all in the shins.

But there are also conversations which remind you of the fact that, while mobiles have given people many more opportunities to talk to one another, they haven’t necessarily got anything more to say. I think this is what Harold Pinter had in mind when he responded to the advent of the mobile phone by writing a short sketch. (I thought of this because we are going to a Pinter play on Friday, of which more, I hope later.)

I remember the sketch pretty well because, rather unusually, it was performed on BBC Newsnight, and one of the characters was played by Pinter himself, probably something like a year or two before he died. I have just done a bit of Googling and found to my delight that it’s on YouTube. (Well obviously, once you think of it.) So I have put it below. Although the actors are sitting in the studio and reading from scripts, you’re to imagine that they are speaking on mobile phones. The vain attempts of the two characters to find something significant to say are both funny and tragic  Enjoy it.