On Wednesday the 10th of October 2018, Harold Pinter would have turned 88. 10 years after his death, the Jamie Lloyd Company (the team behind the unprecedented Pinter at the Pinter season currently running at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London’s West End until February 2019) gathered together an all-star cast of performers to celebrate his legacy in a one-off gala event, Happy Birthday, Harold. Framing the event as a birthday – a celebration of life – for one who is no longer with us placed the evening’s events in a compelling tension between celebration and commemoration, at times irreverent and playful, at others bittersweet and haunting. In this blog post, I want to reflect on how Happy Birthday, Harold opens up broader questions and ideas around memory, memorialisation and – to borrow theatre scholar Marvin Carlson’s term – ‘ghosting’. These ideas, I suggest, are particularly powerful in the case of a contemporary canonical figure like Pinter, who leaves behind a number of close personal friends and collaborators still engaged in the performance (and re-performance) of his work today.
Curated Texts in Context
The evening showcased the broad spectrum of writing that Pinter undertook during his career with extracts from his best-known full-length plays like The Birthday Party, The Caretakerand The Homecoming alongside his poetry, sketches, screenwriting and political commentary. Divided into two acts, the programme seemed to move from the personal to the political, suggestive of the widely accepted belief the Pinter became, both personally and in his writing, more explicitly political in his later years. In line with this blending of personal and political, proceeds from the event went to support Amnesty International and Chance to Shine, two of Pinter’s favoured charities.
Appropriately, given the evening’s theme, Act One opened with a scene from The Birthday Party, Pinter’s first major work for the West End. John Simm’s robust Goldberg set the tone for the first few light-hearted vignettes: Hayley Squires in Request Stopand Jon Culshaw and Tom Edden in That’s Your Troubleall revelling in the quick, light humour of Pinter’s sketches, and Simon Russell Beale, Simm and John Hefferman in a boisterous scene from The Hothouse.
Then, came the first major shift in tone in a scene from The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the 1969 novel adapted by Pinter for the screen in 1981 (and for which Pinter was nominated for an Academy Award). Kirstin Scott-Thomas’s brittle fragility offered a striking counterpoint to more familiar female roles such as Ruth in The Homecoming (played in Act Two by Indira Varma) or the joyous, vaudevillian stylings of Shelia Hancock and Felicity Kendal in a later sketch, That’s All. Perhaps most striking were the echoes between Scott Thomas-as-Sarah and, later, Zawe Ashton’s Emma in her scene from Betrayal with Tom Hiddleston, a text also centrally concerned with adultery. First performed in 1978, 3 years before the release of The French Lieutenant’s Woman (though Pinter reportedly was already working on the screenplay from 1979), it was captivating to see the resonances between these two characters, never before brought together on stage in one evening due to their different mediums. Such were the opportunities that the evening’s structure afforded; in juxtaposing material from different mediums and points in Pinter’s career, new insights began to emerge.
The majority of Act One felt meditative and intimate, with the exception of Hancock and Kendal’s two-hander and Tamsin Grieg’s reading of Arthur Miller’s Socks, delivered with deadly comedic precision and foreshadowing the more overtly politicised turn the evening would take in Act Two. Recounting the pair’s experience of (and expulsion from) the American Embassy in Turkey, Arthur Miller’s Socks was written by Pinter as a tribute to Miller on his 80th birthday. In the context of the evening’s events, despite its humour, the piece took on a haunting resonance, as did playwright Patrick Marber’s reading of A Wake for Sam, an anecdote Pinter shared in tribute to the late Samuel Beckett, one of his key influences. In both these moments and, later, in the reading of Pinter’s tribute to his old school teacher, Joseph Brearley 1909-1977 (teacher of English),Pinter was both the subject of the evening’s memorial, while his words simultaneously served to memorialise the lives, work and influence of other people in his life.
Pinter’s ‘presence’ was made even more apparent in moments such as Death, a short poem read by (and credited in the programme as) Pinter himself. One of a series of recorded clips that were interspersed throughout the evening, Pinter’s distinctive, sonorous voice echoed throughout the theatre as he intoned,
‘Where was the dead body found?
Who found the dead body?
Was the dead body dead when found?
How was the dead body found?
Who was the dead body?’
Attuned as we were to the occasion for the evening’s performance – and alongside the wider programmes of work taking place across London to mark 10 years since Pinter’s death – it was as though the author spoke of his own dead body, invoking both his absence and presence simultaneously.
Act One concluded with a series of poems Pinter wrote for his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser (who was in attendance that evening). Paapa Essiedu’s reading of Paris or Lia William’s reading of To Antonia were deeply moving, not only for the feelings of love they expressed and the obvious tenderness of their delivery but, again, because of the context in which they were performed which inflected them differently. The resonance of lines such as ‘Everything we do / connects the space / between death and me / and you’ from I Know the Place, read by Varma or ‘You were my life / When I was dead / You are my life / And so I live’ from David Suchet’s rendition of To My Wife took on an almost prescient quality, a sense of the heart-breaking inexorability of death and its effect on those it leaves behind. Finally – and perhaps most hauntingly of all – was another recording of Pinter delivering It is Here (for A) to close Act One. Its final lines, ‘It was the breath we took when we first met. / Listen. It is here’ again served to call their absent author/performer into being, tempered by the realisation that, of course, it was not here anymore.
That said, to have an evening exclusively or even primarily focused on love and loss would, perhaps, not do justice to the full range of either Pinter’s oeuvre or, by all accounts, his personality. No sooner had the final line of It Is Here (for A) concluded than another recording of Pinter tersely proclaiming ‘let’s have a drink’ to mark the interval, effectively undercut the pervasive sense of sorrow, reminding the audience that tonight was, first and foremost, a celebration.
Act Two tackled Pinter’s more overtly political works – and in particular his ongoing critique of American foreign policy – with poems like God Bless America (read by Russell Tovey) or American Football (again, ‘read’ by Pinter) and the recently discovered sketch, The Pres and Officer, in which Culshaw’s thrillingly accurate impression of Donald Trump in all his ignorant, morally bankrupt horror as the Pres plays off against Jonjo O’Neill’s stricken Officer to the delight of audiences both that evening and earlier in the season in Pinter One. If Act One felt hauntingly prescient in relation to Pinter’s own passing, much of Act Two felt like a searing critique of our contemporary moment with lines such as ‘Don’t look. / The world’s about to break’ from the poem Don’t Look (read by Heffernan) placed immediately before ‘Trump’s’ arrival on stage. Jeremy Irons’ chilling, reptilian performance as the despotic torturer Briggs from No Man’s Landbecame an allegory for every blatant, ongoing abuse of power, where those in control act with impunity, safe in the knowledge that they are untouchable.
The final piece, The Coast, was a short story written in 1975 that recounts the meeting of two old friends taking a stroll along an unnamed sea-side promenade. In it, the author narrates their friend’s comments such as ‘if anything, you look younger, if anything’ or ‘seems wetter than ever down here’. In his performance, Keith Allen delivered these interjections in an uncannily accurate impression of Pinter in his later years; deep, gruff and always to the point. Here, Pinter was invoked once more, this time as a character in his own story. So accurate was Allen’s impression and off-hand delivery that Pinter’s words seemed to become Allen’s own recollection of a meeting between the two. In a final masterstroke in director Jamie Lloyd’s impeccable curation of the evening, the story’s final lines became simultaneously both Allen’s sentiments, but also seemed to speak for all those – both present at the event and beyond – that had come into contact with Pinter and his work:
‘He bought me a tea at the railway station. I then walked with him to his train. Glad to see you’ve found your feet, he said, glad to see you’re blossoming. I clasped his hand and thanked him for making the journey.’
Ghosting and Memory
As this brief summary of some of the evening’s performances makes clear, collectively the evening worked to both invoke Pinter’s presence, and note his absence; Pinter was both everywhere and nowhere. In his 2003 book The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine, Marvin Carlson explores the ways in which the memory of the spectator informs the process of theatrical reception. For Carlson, theatre is ‘a cultural activity deeply involved with memory and haunted by repetition. Moreover, as an ongoing social institution it almost invariably reinforces this involvement and haunting by bringing together on repeated occasion and in the same spaces the same bodies (on stage and in the audience) and the same physical material’ (p. 11). Carlson divides the various ‘haunted’ aspects of performance into four key areas – text, body (specifically the actor’s body), production and house – interrogating how each of these elements shape and, in turn, are shaped by the reperformance of theatrical productions.
The select overview I offer above of the different texts that comprised Happy Birthday, Harold’s programme, I hope, illustrates how each one was profoundly shaped and differently inflected by its position in this one-off event. Beyond the textual links and resonances where the performers themselves, almost all of whom have performed Pinter’s work before, some working closely with Pinter during his lifetime. To outline all of the interconnections between the cast or creative team and Pinter would take another blog entry itself. In brief, however, actors such as Irons, Williams, Hancock, Scott-Thomas or Simm, for example, are amongst those synonymous with Pinter’s work in performance and each represent, in Carlson’s terms, a ‘haunted body’. They carry the various associations and memories (both their own and in the minds of some of the audience) of their previous roles with them. More recently, cast members such as Essiedu, Squires, Tovey, Suchet, O’Neill or Kate O’Flynn – all of whom appeared in Pinter One or Pinter Two – are redolent of the interconnectedness of the evening’s events to the wider season of work. In turn, appearances from Allen, Edden, Simm, Grieg, Heffernan, Ron Cook, Gary Kemp or Lee Evans who will each appear in either Pinter Three, Four, Five, Six or Seven will carry the trace of their performances from this evening forward into their next Pinter-role, blending with the other associations audiences may have of their work on stage and in Pinter specifically, creating a tapestry of interconnected performers and roles in the contemporary canon of Pinter-in-performance.
Of course, these associations are not limited exclusively to professional actors. One stand-out moment in Act Two came from Channel 4 news anchor Jon Snow’s reading of Pinter’s address to the House of Commons in 2002 in which Pinter fiercely decried then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s support for the US. Snow’s association with current affairs, his assumed left-leaning politics and rigorous interrogation of the War in Iraq may well have loomed large in the minds of many in the audience and it is precisely Snow’s status as a journalist rather than an actor that gave weight to lines such as ‘They [the US and the Bush Administration specifically] are determined, quite simply, to control the world and the world’s resources. And they don’t give a damn how many people they murder on the way.’ Delivered by one of the UK’s best-known journalists, the horribly irony of lines like this – that underscored how little we have progressed or, more accurately, how far we have regressed – resounded strikingly.
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, there is the space itself: the Harold Pinter Theatre. For Carlson, throughout history ‘the theatre building has often been viewed as a domain of ghosts’ (p. 142) and, in the case of specific buildings dedicated to the work of one artist, audiences bring even more precise expectations or associations with that site to bear on the work they see there. He explains that, ‘physical locations, like individual human beings, can by the operations of fame be so deeply implanted in the consciousness of a culture that individuals in that culture, actually encountering them for the first time, inevitably find that experience already haunted by the cultural construction of these persons and places’ (p. 135). Changing its name in 2011, the Harold Pinter Theatre is one such location, steeped in the cultural significance that Pinter has accrued both during his lifetime and after his passing; it is, as Carlson would argue, ‘mnemonically highly charged’ (p. 147).
Deriving from the Latin phrase ‘remember you must die’, in visual art a memento mori is typically a piece designed to remind the viewer of their own mortality and the fragility of human life. Looking back on Happy Birthday, Harold, this seems to me a useful way to describe a birthday celebration for one who has passed away. In Pinter’s case, for one who is both not present but nevertheless made present by the occasion; specifically, by a cast and creative team comprised of many of Pinter’s friends, collaborators and inheritors; an audience of Pinter enthusiasts; and a venue that will continue to stand long after this night’s fleeting events or the ongoing Pinter at the Pinter season, as a both a lively commercial venue but also as a memorial, freighted by the cultural associations and legacy of its namesake.
To find about more about the Pinter at the Pinter season and for information on how to book, visit https://www.pinteratthepinter.com