Theatre: The bits between the pauses are what we call `acting'

Harold Pinter's plays often suffer from over-analysis. But not when he's in them. By James Rampton
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First Man (angrily): What do you mean by this?

(Pause)

Second Man (apprehensive): What?

First Man (dangerously): Who told you you could do it? (Pause)

Second Man (scared): What?

First Man (threateningly): You know what I'm talking about ... (Pause)

Second Man (by now petrified): What?

First Man (shouting): Who gave you permission to bugger about with my plays?

Second Man: You did. (Pause)

First Man: Oh.

(Fade to black.)

You'd imagine this might be the experience of people collaborating with Harold Pinter on his work - a terrifying Cocktail Party of simmering menace, underlying cruelty, barely suppressed violence, and an awful lot of ... pauses.

The director Joe Harmston knows all about working with Pinter. Over the past four years he has assisted him on the direction of such plays as Taking Sides, The Hothouse and Twelve Angry Men. He is now directing him as Harry in a new production of The Collection, which opens in a Pinter triple bill with The Lover and A Kind of Alaska at the Donmar Warehouse in London tonight.

Harmston confirms the stereotypical image. "People's impression of rehearsing with Harold is that everyone talks in half-sentences, it is very threatening and fraught, and you never know if someone is going to walk out or not. But it's not like that," he claims. "There's a lot of fun and laughter in rehearsals with Harold." Laughter? With Pinter? "We just get on with it, interspersed with cups of tea and ginger biscuits."

Lia Williams, who was directed by Pinter in David Mamet's Oleanna, now finds herself playing alongside him in The Collection. She reckons that having the author in situ is "the greatest resource", before admitting that "it does add edge to rehearsals. But you can't play Pinter unless you're on the point of a nervous breakdown anyway, so it actually helps".

For his part, Douglas Hodge, who has acted opposite Pinter in No Man's Land and now in The Collection, finds working with him less knee-tremblingly scary. "He's a volatile and powerful bloke, no doubt about it. But he wouldn't be the playwright he is if he didn't have those qualities. Working with him is actually the opposite of intimidating. Without sounding pretentious, it's liberating. You feel you have his credence - and he's often as nervous as you are. Also, if he's acting in a play he's written, he's beautifully well-mannered. He doesn't say to the director, `this isn't how it was meant to be'." He apparently doesn't get many lines wrong, either.

For all that, Pinter does enjoy - if that's the right word - a reputation for being difficult. "That's only true for people who've never worked with him," Harmston counters. "There is something austere and intimidating about Harold's writing - an aura surrounds it and him. It would be stupid to deny that. But if one is fortunate enough to work with him, then that evaporates with alarming speed. If Harold is difficult, it's because that word is nearly always shorthand for `determined to get it right'. A lot of people who are particular and precise about what is achieved are labelled `difficult'."

The playwright is, for instance, notorious for demanding complete silence in the rehearsal-room - a practice which Harmston again defends. "It's a nonsense to suggest you can have total concentration and commitment if you've got people stamping around outside or digging up the road. It's all to do with trying to achieve perfection."

All this baggage only adds to Pinter's impact as an actor. "He has extraordinary presence," says Williams, "and a percentage of that is to do with the fact that he's Harold Pinter walking on stage. He carries with him that charisma and sense of danger."

Karel Reisz, who helmed Pinter's script of The French Lieutenant's Woman and is now directing the Donmar production of A Kind Of Alaska, laughs that "those of us who know him and are fond of his grumpiness like seeing him on stage with a licence to exercise it." Although that has evidently never extended to Pinter crying out, "who wrote this rubbish?".

Harmston points to a similarity between the economy of Pinter's writing and acting. "He knows that a carefully placed term or look can speak a hundred words. It's also to do with stillness. As an actor, he understands the power of repose on stage. There is an enormous amount of action in Harold's writing, but very little activity. That's something he's aware of as an actor - activity is not nearly the same as action."

Pinter brings the same forensic mind to his work as a director. When directing, he is even able to detach himself from his role as a writer - to the extent that he reportedly used to remark when directing Donald Pleasance in a production of The Caretaker, "I think what the author meant here was ..."

"He has great regard for the intelligence of the audience," says Harmston. "He knows you need to explain very little to them. Often in the theatre, there's a desire to demonstrate something when what is important is to tell it and be confident that the audience will make their own assumptions."

More than anything, the collaborators have relished working with Pinter the writer. "Since the Second World War, language has collapsed, and people talk through smokescreens and codes," Hodge contends. "People very rarely say what they mean - and Harold is great at conveying that." Pinter certainly comes closest among contemporary British dramatists to living up to that overworked phrase "living legend". But in some ways, he has become a victim of that. "Pinteresque" is now a byword for anything vaguely portentous, and endless student productions have scarely done the writer any favours - The Dumb Waiter in a scout-hut on the Edinburgh Fringe, anyone?

Hodge concedes that the fact Pinter's very surname has spawned an adjective is "the greatest compliment - but he detests it, as well as that business about pauses. He now wishes he'd never written a pause".

Williams chips in: "It's very easy to get Pinter wrong. A lot of productions do a very arch `Pinteresque' style. But that's not right, because he writes real characters. They may be muted by the manners and conventions of a play, but underneath they're burning."

Pinter has also been on the wrong end of critics carping that there is less to his work than meets the eye. "When the critics write a play that's as good as any of Pinter's, then fine," snorts Hodge. "It is difficult for any play to bear the scrutiny that his receive. To respond to that huge pantechnicon of pressure would even stymie Shakespeare. The problem with definition is that it diminishes the reverberations in a piece. When you say `this line means that', it's an academic way of nullifying the potency of the play."

Harmston agrees that Pinter's work has often suffered death by textual analyses, that literary luvvies have too often been unleashed on his canon. "Harold writes a play and says `that's it'. He doesn't pronounce that `A Kind of Alaska is my exploration of neurological care in the NHS'. Terrible harm has been done to Pinter by people who make grand assertions about what he is trying to say.

"We never have editorial content in the programme. There's a tendency to fill 22 pages with articles by Dr Smith from Birmingham University. Bollocks to that. Watch the play, and see what happens."

(Pause)

(Fade to black.)

`Three By Harold Pinter: A Kind of Alaska, The Collection and The Lover' - is at the Donmar Warehouse, London, WC2 (0171-369 1732) until 13 June

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