The Week in Arts: Do put your politics on the stage, Mr Pinter

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Harold Pinter will, I suspect, turn out to be the Frank Sinatra of playwriting. His retirement announcement this week is not actually the first (he made a similar pledge in the 1980s) and it will not, I hope, be the last.

Harold Pinter will, I suspect, turn out to be the Frank Sinatra of playwriting. His retirement announcement this week is not actually the first (he made a similar pledge in the 1980s) and it will not, I hope, be the last.

He says he is giving up playwriting to concentrate on poetry and his role as a political activist. He will find soon enough that poetry has a woefully low profile in our public and cultural life, and that alone might cause him to change his mind.

But it is his other reason for quitting that puzzles me more: giving up playwriting to concentrate on politics. For me, and, I would have hoped, for Harold Pinter, there can be few better places to engage with politics than the theatre. Surely one doesn't leave playwriting to be political. One becomes a playwright to be political.

It's fashionable to knock the theatre, but I maintain that as a political force it outscores most other art forms still. David Hare's play on the effects of privatisation of the railways seemed to have more people talking about the subject than any number of newspaper articles. Nicholas Hytner's "Iraq take" on Henry V also concentrated the mind on the personality of our Prime Minister. And, one of the best examples, Mountain Language, showed much better than an Amnesty report the relationship between interrogator and political prisoner, the fear of torture, the odious manipulation of language and the paranoia of an authoritarian regime. The author of that, of course, is Harold Pinter. In other plays, including One for the Road and Ashes to Ashes, he again explored violence by the powerful against dissidents and the powerless. He has not exactly been unpolitical in his career.

Not that plays have to address an issue overtly to be political and inform political debate. Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman made real the negative side of the American dream, and the psychological struggle of someone thrown on the scrapheap. Is that any less relevant now than when it was written?

The theatre may be expensive; it may be variable in quality; but one cannot dispute that it has political bite and informs political debate. Harold Pinter has pungent things to say about the Government, the Prime Minister, America, its president, and no doubt much else. Now and again, his views well be reported and debated - if it's a quiet news day. But if he continues to reflect his world view in his plays, they will be seen, discussed, put on school and university syllabi, and translated around the world.

Be the most effective sort of political activist, Mr Pinter. Be a playwright.

How easy to smirk at US showbiz press

* Actresses who despair of the British press should try the Americans. Our Oscar hopefuls found in their trip to Los Angeles that no amount of media training could prepare them for the questions fired at them from the US showbiz reporters and TV presenters. Sophie Okonedo, star of Hotel Rwanda, told me that she was asked for her views on black-on-black crime in south Los Angeles, not a subject on which the Muswell Hill resident is an expert.

But none of the British contingent was more stumped than Imelda Staunton, above. She was asked by Joan Rivers, no less, whether she had actually met the character she plays in Vera Drake, "or is she dead now?".

It's a pity that Ms Staunton didn't keep the conversation going. She could have wrung tears from Joan Rivers by pretending that the fictional character was indeed alive, had been in and out of prison, but was a key figure in Britain's abortion legislation. Some sort of improvisation is the least that her director, Mike Leigh, would have demanded.

Reading the serialised diaries of the former Daily Mirror editor, Piers Morgan, this week, I noted that one story he agreed not to publish concerned an argument between Paul McCartney and his then fiancée, Heather Mills.

McCartney asked Morgan to kill the story, pleading that his relationship would suffer if the press reported every row they had, and, significantly, reminding the Mirror editor that he was "a Beatles' fan".

It must be a disquieting thought for Paul that, as a new generation of editors emerges, such a plea to the heart will cut no ice. The day will sadly but surely come when Paul phones an editor, only to receive the reply: "Sorry chum, but I'm a Franz Ferdinand man."

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