The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter, London Classic Theatre, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, Monday 12 April, 7.45pm.
Early plays by Harold Pinter are a particular favourite of mine, and were so even when, or perhaps especially when, I was still living in Australia and hadn't visited England or, more particularly, the South Coast.
Attending this play in Eastbourne, a place which, along with Worthing where Pinter performed as an actor, may have inspired some of it's references, I thought would have the effect, at long last, of filling in some of the cultural minutiae: the view from the front door of the theatre was the view which the writer imagined and which the actors brought to rehearsal, but for someone growing up in Queensland, no matter how many books I read or films I watched, a boarding house in England was mysterious and exotic beyond expression, unknowable.
Pinter was, along with Samuel Beckett, Tom Stoppard, Peter Shaffer, John Osborne, et al, etc. etc. partly responsible for my confusion about life in the Old Country. A country bumpkin, desperate for that which was modern and cutting edge, I picked out those aspects of their plays which travelled, which resonated, or still worked, though taken entirely out of context.
In Pinter's case, as with Beckett before him and Stoppard and others after, what carried across the seas was the rhythm of the words. I'd never read anything like it. And I came to this writing late, already in my twenties. It wasn't exactly poetry, iambic pentameter, as I understood poetry then, though I could see the similarities with Eliot and Pound for example. The speeches were enjoyable to read out loud, a music of consonants.
But it didn't really make any sense, apart from a seemingly odd mix of references, a random assortment not dissimilar to my own eclectic prejudices or fantasies of England: hedgerows, hollyhocks, tea, dry toast, french toast (what was that?) deckchairs, the seaside.
Reading the plays while assuming ignorance of much of the specifics, they became abstract, odd, out-of-place artefacts, very enjoyable but a bit opaque, as if the key to a clear understanding was missing.
Thus, at long last, seeing Pinter's first full length play in a seaside town should have been a defining experience, everything should have fallen into place. In fact it was the opposite.
This production appeared to have made clear and definite decisions about the play; that it was about 'something', that it was set 'somewhere specific'. They had imposed a thematic certainty, to the extent of having a kind of charnel house of bones and skulls occasionally visible beneath the stage.
This made for a pretty long and tedious evening. Pinter's bagatelle, his abstract mix of stock phrases, commonplace sayings, his menace, his energy, became not mysterious, but dull.
In fact, it is precisely those aspects which were open to me in Australia, that are still, in England what make his work important.
Pinter reminds me of Jackson Pollock. Pollock took painting back to its most basic form: a brush is held by a hand, which is moved by an arm. The brush applies paint in various ways. The surface of the painting is the painting. The paint is the painting. The way the paint shows the energy of the hand and arm that applied the paint is the painting.
Pinter too, takes theatre back to its most basic form in somewhat the same way. Theatre is an actor on a stage in front of an audience. The actor can do anything he or she likes. Anything is possible.
Why should there have to be a story? Why should the character be consistent? Why can't it be set anywhere? Or nowhere? Or both?
What Pinter discovered was the surprising potential of this idea, that a character whose nature is unknown, whose motives are uncertain, is menacing, scary, and is thus, in their menace, comic. Add to this the rhythm of the dialogue, Pinter's comic timing, his energy, his characters energy and it all adds up to something very theatrical and entertaining. If done right, that is.
This is all very challenging for actors and directors of course. What do you hang on to? What do you actually act? Are you telling me to be abstract? That's ridiculous!
What you have to hang on to are the words and the rhythm. Like Shakespeare, you say. And yet not like Shakespeare in that the characters and the situations can change at will, can be whatever the character wants them to be, that have the best or most menacing effect at that moment. It's a never ending competition of one-up-man-ship.
The only thing you can do wrong really, is decide what it's all about. Then you are absolutely lost.