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Singular talent: the one-act plays that helped Harold Pinter find his voice

Antony Sher in rehearsals for the Pinter at the PInter season of one-act plays
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To mark the 10th anniversary of the playwright’s death, Pinter devotee Jamie Lloyd has assembled a stellar cast to bring all 20 short plays to the West End. Nick Smurthwaite explores the works written over 40 years

It is more than 60 years since Harold Pinter wrote his first one-act play, The Room, in 1957. In the following 40 years he wrote another 19 one-act works and they will all be seen, over the next six months, at the West End theatre bearing his name.

The season, marking the 10th anniversary of the playwright’s death, is the brainchild of director and Pinter devotee Jamie Lloyd. A stellar cast includes Tamsin Greig, Antony Sher, David Suchet, Meera Syal, Lee Evans and Paapa Essiedu.

The Room, written the year before The Birthday Party, his first full-length play, was inspired by a brief, impromptu visit to the bedsit of writer and performer Quentin Crisp in the 1950s. During Pinter’s visit, Crisp, who never stopped talking, was cooking breakfast for a large man who sat at a table, saying nothing.

Pinter, then a jobbing actor working as David Baron, told his childhood friend Henry Woolf of the visit. Woolf, knowing Pinter’s ambition to write, urged him to turn it into a short play.

Talking to drama students in 1962, Pinter described how he approached the art of playwriting: “I never plan a play, it’s a true voyage of discovery. I let the words happen. I usually begin a play in quite a simple manner, find a couple of characters in a particular context, throw them together and listen to what they say, keeping my nose to the ground.”

Harold Pinter. Photo: Rolf Marriott/BBC
Harold Pinter. Photo: Rolf Marriott/BBC

He continued: “I’ve never started a play from any kind of abstract idea or theory and never envisaged my own characters as messengers of death or doom. My characters tell me so much and no more, with reference to their experience, their aspirations, their motives, their history. Between my lack of biographical data and the ambiguity of what they say lies a territory which is not only worthy of exploration but which it is compulsory to explore.”

Pinter wrote The Room in two days and entrusted it to Woolf to direct at the University of Bristol, with a cast from its drama department.

Woolf recalls: “I remember the audience waking up from its polite cultural stupor and beginning to enjoy themselves. Something special was going on. Something very funny and at the same time rather menacing. A new voice was speaking, and English theatre was never going to be the same again.”

The next two one-acts, A Slight Ache, written in 1959 for BBC radio, and The Dumb Waiter, produced in 1960 at Hampstead Theatre Club, followed the disastrous critical reception given to The Birthday Party at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1959, which almost caused Pinter to abandon the idea of becoming a playwright. He credited the BBC with coming to his rescue by commissioning A Slight Ache.

The Birthday Party: How Harold Pinter’s menacing early work confounded the critics

If each play he’d written was “a different kind of failure”, as he once said, The Birthday Party was a catastrophic one, coming off after just eight performances. Only Harold Hobson of the Sunday Times recognised its value and durability, attributing to the writer “the most original, disturbing and arresting theatrical talent in London”.

Pinter himself in The Hothouse at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in 1995. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Pinter himself in The Hothouse at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in 1995. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Like a lot of Pinter’s later work, A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter juggled comedy, menace and mystery in equal measure. A pattern was starting to emerge in which what was said masked another meaning entirely.

“The speech we hear [in drama] is an indication of that which we don’t hear,” he once wrote. “It is a necessary avoidance, a sly, anguished or mocking smokescreen which keeps the other in its place. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.”

Some of his later one-acts, such as One for the Road and Mountain Language, both in 1984, and The New World Order seven years later, are bracingly political, reflecting Pinter’s passionate involvement in international human rights. These three will be produced together in the Pinter at the Pinter season under the direction of Jamie Lloyd, overall artistic director for the programme.

Alan Bates and Jenny Quale in One for the Road at Hammersmith’s Lyric Studio Theatre in 1984. Photo: Alex von Koettlitz

Lloyd directed The Hothouse in 2013, as well as the 50th-anniversary production of The Homecoming in 2015. His back catalogue also includes The Caretaker in 2007, and a double bill of The Lover and The Collection in 2008, the year of Pinter’s death.

Lloyd recently described in the Sunday Times how it felt, as a young director, to work on a Pinter play in the presence of the writer.

“It was the equivalent of having Shakespeare in the room. For actors who are desperate to get it right, it’s an impossible pressure. He used to say: ‘Bollocks to the pause.’ That whole thing about the pause being the be-all-and-end-all of his work, which seems so baffling because you get these weird, laboured, impenetrable productions [that are] so slow. He always thought of his plays as being electric and very, very funny.”

Mark Rylance has also been engaged to deliver the speech Pinter recorded on video, entitled Art, Truth and Politics, on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005. His two performances in October will be in aid of the Stop the War Coalition. The speech is largely an attack on America’s aggression, intervention and imperialism, but Pinter also used it as a platform to reassert art’s primacy over politics.

Pinter at the Pinter is at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, until February 23

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

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