Harold Pinter at the RSC: Beyond The Homecoming
Harold Pinter’s affiliation with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), the impact of the works he produced there, and his artistic relationship with its founding director Peter Hall are typically discussed in relation to early seminal productions such as The Collection (1962), The Homecoming (1965) or Old Times (1971). These mainstage productions at the Aldwych Theatre – the RSC’s first London base from 1961 to 1983 – have become canonical both in histories of Pinter’s work and narratives of post-war British theatre.
It was during the 1960s and 70s that the RSC began to sustain a network of different spaces and production formats designed to make work by contemporary playwrights like Pinter a central part of the company’s practice and identity. All of these spaces – which included private club theatres such as The Arts Theatre, studio spaces at LAMDA, and adapted and purpose-built small public theatres like The Warehouse and The Other Place – were broadly characterised by a spirit of ‘experimentation’ by mainstream media, cultural commentators, and RSC practitioners at the time. Commitment to experimentation was precisely what Hall was careful to emphasise during an address to the company in 1963 in which he insisted that ‘we [the company] want to be in a world of experiment’ (qtd in Crucial Years (London and Stratford-Upon-Avon: Max Reinhardt and the Royal Shakespeare Company, 1963), p. 18). The work undertaken in these spaces – Pinter’s included – has come to be regarded as some of the RSC’s most exciting and pioneering, representing several key moments in the British theatrical landscape at the time.
This work was also some of the company’s most controversial. Works such as Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, David Rudkin’s Afore Night Come, Pinter’s The Homecoming and other works (now collectively referred to as the ‘Dirty Plays’ scandal in 1964-5) seemed to some to call into question the RSC’s commitment to Shakespeare, the worthiness of its endorsement by Queen and country implied by its Royal Charter, and its newly awarded state subsidy by the Arts Council of Great Britain. New work, then, has always occupied a contested position within the RSC, often pushing at the boundaries of what an ostensibly Shakespearean institution should be ‘for’.
What is less well documented is the rich tapestry of small scale, one-off, and touring productions of Pinter’s work that took place alongside these widely celebrated and/or decried mainstage works. The variety and frequency of these lesser-known productions suggests that the impact of Pinter’s work on the company’s emerging identity during these decades was perhaps even more acute and manifested in a variety of different ways and contexts. As part of the archival research for the Harold Pinter: Histories and Legacies project, the team at the University of Birmingham will be looking not only at these seminal works, but also at the short-lived, less publicised, or even in-house instances of Pinter at the RSC.
Early research at the RSC Collections held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon has already revealed a number of intriguing cases. For example, in 1967 The Dumb Waiter featured in Theatregoround’s (TGR) tour of the Midlands. Since its inception in 1965 (then known as ‘Actors Commando’) TGR’s objectives were geared towards introducing audiences who were hitherto unfamiliar with the work of the RSC to what the company could offer. Functioning as the RSC’s mobile touring unit, TGR’s stripped back aesthetic, affordable pricing, and commitment to regional audiences ultimately provided the inspiration for the civic principles that underpinned Buzz Goodbody’s vision for The Other Place. Its work therefore represents a significant moment in the RSC’s early history and identity, the impact of which is still present today. In an interview for Theatre in 1975, TGR founder Michael Kustow describes one of TGR’s first endeavours as,
‘[A] misguided, lunatic and yet rather worthwhile attempt to tell the history of the theatre in an hour and half. […] [F]rom melodrama we leapt into Pinter and The Birthday Party. The audience, all turned on by melodrama, could see, all of a sudden, the very wholesome base of melodrama in Pinter himself. They took The Birthday Party without thinking what a hifaluting, philosophical, complex statement it was, and instead saw these two guys working over this poor guy with his spectacles.’ (qtd in ‘The Old Vic to Vincennes: Interviews with Michael Kustow and Peter Brook’, Theatre 7.1 (1975), p. 81).
Here, Kustow alludes to how the rapid juxtaposition of different texts that TGR’s practice embraced potentially facilitated a different kind of engagement with and relationship to Pinter’s work. At the same time, this observation from Kustow raises interesting archival research challenges: while Kustow is unequivocal in his emphasis on The Birthday Party (later alluding to a full-length production of the play by TGR), archival documentation pertaining to this production is scant. It is precisely these kinds of challenges and case studies that we hope to explore over the coming months and ultimately to bring this previously underexplored strand of Pinter’s work with the RSC to the fore. How does Pinter’s work with the RSC offer new insights into both his practice and the identity and practices of the company? What are their inter-related legacies? In what ways has Pinter’s own experience of repertory theatre (specifically touring) shaped his writing? What are the potential implications of the RSC’s touring of Pinter’s work for understanding both the RSC’s artistic output (particularly during the 1960s and 70s) and for understanding Pinter’s early career?