Pinter Double Bill, Radio 4

Pinter double-whammy has restored my faith
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The Independent Culture

The powers that be seem to be doing something to the Afternoon Play on Radio 4: they're trying to get people to listen to it. This involves commissioning work from, say, AC Grayling or Peter Ackroyd; or, on the light side, you can get a comedy drama by Hudson and Pepperdine – Hudson and Pepperdine Save the Planet, a couple of weeks ago, was very silly but had rather a lot of laughs in it. It is quite a change from the kind of stuff Radio 4 used to put out, which would tend to involve what may best be described as offerings from the school of regional whimsy. And for this relief, we are most grateful.

Then again, we are also getting a repeat of RF Delderfield's To Serve Them All My Days, and there's something vaguely unsettling about breaking up the daily dose of drama with a serial. Then again, if it's popular, and keeps people listening after The Archers, well, why not?

But, last week, on Thursday, we were given a real treat: two plays by Harold Pinter. The Examination, a monologue delivered by Michael Gambon; and Landscape, a two-hander starring Penelope Wilton and the great man, ie Harold Pinter, himself.

Such is his reputation as a playwright, people forget that Pinter is an actor as well – and a damned fine one. He is best, though, delivering his own material, or material with which he has a deep affinity; it is one of the enduring regrets of my life that I never got to see him in Krapp's Last Tape, which, by very plausible accounts, was one of the most remarkable dramatic performances of Beckett ever staged.

Anyway, to hear Pinter performing is a privilege. It is beyond the power and scope of this column to offer any interpretation of the plays, for they are subtle, twisting and ambiguous affairs, and better minds than mine have wrestled with definitions of what "the Pinteresque" might entail, but I can at least describe his voice. Which we hear as a rough foil to Penelope Wilton's wistful reminiscences of love. Let's give her performance due credit: she delivers the opening lines ("I would like to stand by the sea. It is there. I have many times. It is something ... I cared for. I've done it. ... People move so easily. Men. Men move.") with the kind of cadences that make the words vibrate, like a plucked string. And then we get Duff, Pinter's character, barging in with the likes of: "Mind you, there was a lot of shit all over the place, all along the paths. Dog shit, duck shit, all kinds of shit, all over the paths. The rain didn't clear it up, it made it all the more treacherous." Or, my favourite line: "I would have had you, in front of the dog!"

I don't think I'm breaking any new critical ground by saying that Pinter probably knows how to deliver his lines better than anyone, but, really, his delivery is extraordinary: if Wilton makes the words quiver, Pinter makes them boil, a hugely unsettling and completely compelling mixture of rage, threat, and humour. Our laughter is uneasy.

It was brave to follow this with Gambon's more silky performance in The Examination, but then if anyone can compete with Pinter, it's Gambon.

Putting these two works on shows that someone at Radio 4 is putting great faith in the intelligence of the audience. If only they could do this every week.

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