In Celebration of Harold Pinter (A Slight Ache and A
Kind Of Alaska)
Gate Theatre Spring 2006
Harold Pinter recently announced that he was giving up play writing to focus on poetry, so it is perhaps appropriate for the Gate to salute him with two of his most poetic one-act plays. The results are, unfortunately, considerably less successful than one might hope.
I must confess that I have never quite gotten 1982's A Kind of Alaska. Inspired by Oliver Sacks' Awakenings, it shows a woman who went into a sort of catatonic state as a teenager and awakens briefly twenty-nine years later.
Naturally enough, she has difficulty adjusting, but that is just about the only natural thing in the play.
Neither she nor the two other characters - her doctor and sister - ever once say or think anything you might expect people in their situations to, nor does she express herself in the voice of a fifteen-year-old.
Instead, all three are just mouthpieces for Pinter's elliptical poetry that hints at depths of hidden meanings it never delivers.
The original production may have been carried by what was, by all reports, a transcendent performance by Judi Dench. Here an almost unrecognisable Anna Calder-Marshall gives a pretty good vocal imitation of Dench,while Niall Buggy and Diana Hardcastle do very little at all.
In A Slight Ache (1958), a country squire is inordinately disturbed by the appearance of a ragged matchseller at his gate.
Inviting the man in, he tries to intimidate him with boasts of his own accomplishments, only to collapse in confession of their emptiness. His wife also takes her turn to bounce words off the silent figure, exposing her sexual fantasies and hungers.
The play thus touches on several themes that ran through the first few years of Pinter's writing - the invading outsider, the loss of identity, the fear of female sexuality - and one problem with A Slight Ache is that almost any other Pinter play of the period - The Room, The Birthday Party, The Homecoming, etc. - covers the same ground more successfully.
And, as with A Kind of Alaska, too often you are aware of listening to the author's voice and not the characters', though that self-consciousness about language may be the result of its roots as a radio play.
Still, Michael Byrne as the man of the house does capture the bluffness that barely disguises panic, while Diana Hardcastle manoeuvres the delicate journey of exposing an older woman's sexuality without making her look foolish. Hugo Thurston stands still and silent very nicely.
With neither the plays themselves nor the productions being particularly strong, I'm afraid the only people I could recommend this evening to are Pinter buffs looking to tick off a couple of minor works they haven't seen before.
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