Pinter's Mirror at Shakespeare & Company
Agony and Ecstasy of Three One Act Plays
By: Charles Giuliano - Jun 20, 2009
A Slight Ache (1961), Family Voices (1980), Victoria Station (1981)
By Harold Pinter
Directed by Eric Tucker; Set Director, Kiki Smith; Lighting Designer; Greg Solomon; Costume Designer, Megan Moriarty; Musical Designer, Michael Pfeiffer; Stage Manager, Molly Hennighausen
Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre
Shakespeare & Company
June 11 through August 2, 2009
Yet again, in this production of three, one act plays by Harold Pinter (10 October 1930- 24 December 2008) "Pinter's Mirror" (A Slight Ache, Family Voices, Victoria Station) to quote the Bard "The Play's The Thing." And not much bloody else by gum.
The set (what set?) by Kiki Smith is just a drop cloth and ersatz mottled monochrome at the back of the stage, installed and removed in a matter of minutes for the next of many similar productions in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre. Add to that some yard sale furniture, props, and thrift shop costumes, one each for the actors in the three plays designed by Megan Moriarty. Also the nicely nuanced lighting by Greg Solomon and there you have it.
Straight no chaser. This is as close as it gets to the sense of London's Fringe theatre with productions in lofts, attics, pubs or alfresco under a lamp post in Hyde Park. It is passionate theatre at its most bare bones essential. Where the emphasis, again in this case, is focused on the performances of a truly magnificent cast. It's all about the acting and the delivery of that, dare we say this, be still dear heart, riveting and paradigmatic, Pinteresque dialogue. It is not a coincidence that S&Co, with its devotion to the greatest of all playwrights and formidable classical tradition, should present the work of the most demanding and rewarding of all contemporary British playwrights, Harold Pinter.
This is a spot on perfect production of Pinter's plays. It is not possible to imagine finer performances than the richly nuanced, and hilariously over the top, but perfectly precise roles of the actors Elizabeth and Malcom Ingram (S&Co veterans) and the truly phenomenal newcomer, Stephen Pilkington. Add to that the precise pace and direction (at times like watching paint dry but what the script requires) by the director, Eric Tucker. Good grief what powerful theatre. But, oi vey, this is Pinter. Tough love.
The death of Pinter last year left a gaping hole in the art of our time. But he went out in that uniquely Pinteresque manner. Although gravely ill with cancer, in October, 2006, he appeared in Samuel Beckett's one man play "Krapp's Last Tape" at the Royal Court Theatre. It was a stunning and critically acclaimed final triumph of a life in the theatre that left a legacy of 29 plays and 27 screen plays, other writing, numerous roles as an actor, and a great number of turns as a director. There was the abundance of a life richly lived and such masterpieces as "Birthday Party" (1957) "Caretaker" (1959) "Homecoming" (1964) "Betrayal" (1978) "Trial" (1993) and "Sleuth" (2007).
While he was performing "Krapp's Last Tape," which is a portrait of a man looking back over his life from an every more deteriorated and deranged perspective, Pinter was interviewed by Charlie Rose. It was the most insightful and poignant experience imaginable. Rose had the ability, compassion and tact to probe deeply into the art as well as the wounds of Pinter's personal life the shards of which resonate in the work.
In the practice of the greatest artists there is always an impossible blur in the demarcation between fiction, artifice, and reality. But another measure of genius is the ability to mask, deceive, delude and ultimately torment an audience with the darkest, most macabre, grimmest of all comedies, the gallows humor of the human condition. Like that other greatest master, his great friend Beckett, Pinter, and Dante before, they led us on a tour of the circles of Hell. But, as in TS Eliot's 1917 "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" measured out with tea and cakes in teaspoons of terrible desperation; the harrowing ennui of the perfectly ordinary. Seen another way as a theatre of the absurd in which nothing and everything is taking place.
In many ways I reacted to "A Slight Ache" as a parody or homage to Beckett's vaudevillian characters, Vladimir and Estragon, in his masterpiece "Waiting for Godot." Indeed "Nothing to be done" but said over the course of an entire evening of theatre. In this instance God's Waiting Room or Sartre's "No Exit" which states that "Hell is other people" is staged in the inferno of a perfectly lovely English garden during the longest day of the year. For Flora (Elizabeth Ingram) it is a gorgeous day as she serves tea to her husband Edward (Malcolm Ingram) while remarking on the beauty of the flora and fauna in all their blooming magnificence. Like Voltaire's "Candide," which introduced the pre existential notions of ennui and the absurd, they have been "tending their garden" as a metaphor for domestic tranquility.
Edward is a very British, autocratic, over educated, domineering fool and twit. His love and passion for Flora, who dotes on him, has long since lapsed. He argues with her about the species of the bushes. He knows everything and nothing but must always be right. He writes on philosophy and religion for obscure journals read by the few who also languish in the back waters and tidal flats of academia. For "fun" it seems he writes about Darkest Africa which he has never visited but informs us that he has studied the maps. In this one identifies the dilemma of the cultural impact of post colonialism when the Brits have devolved from world domination to arguing over tea in their pristine and well tended gardens. Britain is lovely if a tad enervating. From world rulers to horticulturalists, indeed. Or, as Pinter might have it, you can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think. Hah. Is that Hortense over there? No, she seems relaxed.
Into that well tended garden, on a pristine day, enters the threat of a wasp. Is this a surrogate for White Anglo Saxon Protestant, that most rabid of species? Flora (what a fitting name for this fading rose of womanhood) is terribly afraid of being bitten. No, he corrects, wasps sting. This meanders into an inane debate, which he insists on winning, about how certain insects inflicts pain in just what manner. Sting vs. bite. Of course you find this of no interest and wonder why we are diverting you into this cul de sac. Why are you taking my time, you might ask? Why am I bothering to read this nonsense when there are so many other more important uses of my time?
Exactly. A Pinteresque moment. The point is indeed pointless. Like life. Camus' "The Stranger" Godard's "Breathless" or Seinfeld's "about nothing." Children of the absurd. We have nothing to fear but fear itself. But in that sleep of death what dreams may come? Ah, there's the rub.
So what to do about the threat of the wasp? Edward insists on taking charge fending off her suggestions and help. He decides to trap it in the jar of marmalade. There to drown in a sweetly delicious death. Like their marriage Pinter seems to imply. But she is filled with compassion for its frantic struggle. This only further annoys him. It threatens to work its way out of a notch where the spoon would rest under the lid. He has an answer; to scald the insect with a careful infusion of hot water. She reacts with horror at this efficient cruelty. Rather nicely Pinter has developed an analogy for the demise of marriage. Edward recalls her fine youthful figure, striking red hair, and muses that she has been a good wife "through thick and thin." But he is ever more abusive first verbally then physically. "You're hurting me" she proclaims. Things are running terribly amuck in that tidy little country garden.
Events spin ever more wildly and absurdly out of control. It seems that Edward is fixated on the tramp/ peddler who has been stationed for days on end by the garden gate selling matches. But it is more a path than a road so there is little or no prospect for traffic and sales. Edward is more and more fixated on the motive of the tramp. His obsession draws her in and eventually he prevails on her to invite the tramp into the house where Edward will get to the bottom of the matter. She suggests calling the police.
The tramp upon entering the house is, as Edward puts it, "Disgusting." But in endlessly silly prattle he tries to seat the stranger and offer him a drink. This entails a list of every possible alcoholic refreshment. Again, this is a metaphor for British breeding and fixation on nonsensical connoisseurship of just about everything of no consequence. Those Brits can be so annoyingly self absorbed. They confuse command of information with knowledge and insight. What insufferable bores. For a scholar and philosopher he lacks the most basic compassion or even common sense.
No wonder that the British cling to superannuated notions of royalty in the aftermath of faded glory and reveries of former Empire. Britannia rules the waves. Not. Tight little island. No, uptight little island. Nothing left but the pomp in the change of circumstance.
Edward and Flora are paragons of propriety and repression. Failed lives served with tea. One lump or two? Care for lemon? May I have a carrot? Give me a carrot. Do you have a radish? How about a turnip?
During all of this the hunched over, filthy tramp (Stephen Pilkington) utters not a word. He holds his tray of matches. When he drops them Edward picks them up and discovers they are wet. This just adds to the conundrum. With perfect logic he wonders how the tramp can possibly hope to sell wet matches. Indeed, Edward the "philosopher/ theologian" muses whether it is legal/ ethical/ moral to sell wet matches. The tramp's dead silence, implied suffering, and physical demand of holding the tray, of course, reminded me of Lucky in "Waiting for Godot." But without that incredible speech. Here the tramp never says anything as the dialogue barrages him, first Edward's, and then when he makes no progress, Flora's.
Ultimately, there is reversal in the sense that Aristotle discussed it as an essential element of drama. Here rather neat and complete. As Edward devolves into the tramp while Flora emerges from decades of repression as a "slut" (Edward's curse) and drags the Tramp inside for a good old scrub in the tub follwed by a roll in the hay.
There are two other plays "Family Voices" and "Victoria Station." The first is a bit of a slog but showcases Pilkington brilliantly cavorting and pinging about the stage from marker to marker like a billiard ball. Something about a desperate conflict with his mother and a father who speaks from the grave (the Ingrams). Then the facile fun of a dispatcher (Malcolm Ingram) trying to get cab 274 (Pilkington) to pick up a fare at Victoria Station. But the driver does not know or care where he is or how to get to Victoria Station. Their interaction is nonsensical but this final of the three plays is the most direct and hilarious if lacking the gravitas of the prior two. Thank heavens. By then it was not so much the end of the evening as a chance to escape from the tyrannical grasp of Pinter. Bloody bloke.
Great art comes with heavy baggage. It was good to get away, drive home, talk about the play (Astrid discussed her ideas) and spend a miserable morning writing about Pinter. Until next time. Ode to joy.