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How Pinter changed the landscape of British theatre

By Lauren Ball


Harold Pinter's The Hothouse is currently playing at the Trafalgar Studios, starring Simon Russell Beale and John Simm. Director Jamie Lloyd hosted a panel discussion of Pinter's influence on British theatre, with theatre critic Michael Billington, playwright Nick Payne and actresses Gina McKee and Lea Williams. If you couldn't make it to the event - or you did but you fancy a refresher - here's what they had to say...


When Harold Pinter's first play, The Birthday Party, had its London debut at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1958, it wasn't a success. Michael Billington didn't see it ("Who did? It ran for a week.") but speculates that the less-than-warm response from audiences and critics was due to its lack of resolution. It was, as Alan Brien wrote, like "a Hitchcock movie with the last reel missing." Fast forward sixty years and modern audiences are conditioned to Pinter's denial of the omniscient author - they can look at the evidence presented on stage and draw their own conclusions, whereas the audience of 1958 wasn't quite ready for that. What did have an instant impact, says Billington, was the use of language: "an extraordinary theatrical poetry based on familiar and recognisable speech".

Michael Billington

Theatre critic Michael Billington


Nick Payne

Playwright Nick Payne
Nick Payne, writer of the critically acclaimed Constellations, says many of his peers have been influenced by Pinter's work, including Mike Bartlett (Earthquakes in London), Jez Butterworth (Jerusalem) and Simon Stephens (Punk Rock). With regards to his own work, he speaks of a particular anecdote: that Pinter, when questioned by an actor about the origins of their character, replied "mind your own f*cking business". There was a great freedom, says Payne, in the realisation that he didn't need to have every character detail worked out - that when questioned, it was fine to simply say, "I don't know" (Payne's language is perhaps not as colourful as Pinter's). And there is freedom too for the actors; in this way, Pinter was very generous in letting a cast create the characters.

"[Pinter had] the ability to narrow the border between domestic drama and political drama."

- Michael Billington

Actress Lea Williams, who worked with Pinter personally several times, applauds the "astonishing...humbling" generosity he had as a director, which she had never come across before or since. He really didn't know his characters' origins or motivations. You can go anywhere with Pinter, says Williams, as long as you remember that everything - absolutely everything - is timing. He would communicate by listening to your timing and often find the key to a character in the tone of one word, as happened when she worked with him on Celebration.

Lea Williams

Actress Lea Williams

Gina McKee

Actress Gina McKee
As conversation moves to the inevitable topic of the Pinter Pause, actress Gina McKee speaks of her apprehension the first time she ever had to do one, having heard stories of his work with Peter Hall establishing two- and three-dot pauses to be held for a certain number of seconds, which seemed counter-intuitive to the instinct. Only to be told by Pinter, when working on Old Times, to "use them if they're valuable". The pauses are not set in stone, but McKee believes that the meticulous work with Peter Hall benefitted her generation in establishing Pinter's unique voice to such an extent that they were free to run with it. It's his punctuation in particular that fascinates McKee; she likens it to a musical score with a logical rhythm: "I always see [his punctuation] as 'Harold the actor' speaking to you ... it's a gift."

"A Pinter Pause, when it works, is like liquid gold."

- Lea Williams

And what about Pinter women? Is there a particular type? A recognisable trope throughout his work? Perhaps they are difficult to pigeonhole in this way, but Gina McKee believes that, particularly in his early work, there are recurring themes: he examines the duality he felt women could experience, particularly during the 60s, which was a very interesting time for sexual politics. She holds up The Lover as an example, featuring a woman with equilibrium about her private and public life, and a man who struggles with that; a theme which is also touched upon in Old Times. "They are tougher and more resilient than [his] men," says Billington - and Lea Williams believes that as an actor, you need to be resilient to play them.

A question from an American audience member prompts an interesting discussion: is Pinter inherently English? Perhaps, opines Nick Payne, it is to do with the very English notion of repressed emotion. When his own play, about a family who never confront the elephant in the room was recently on Broadway, he found that audiences would often leave the theatre asking why they couldn't just talk to each other and hug it out. Pinter's work is full of internalisation: in Jamie Lloyd's words, there is "great volcanic emotion" under his characters. As a director, Lloyd tells his cast to "take all that, put it in a jar, tighten the lid as tightly as possible and reveal very little". It is that classic notion of the stiff upper lip. Perhaps Americans are culturally more able to be emotionally vocal, so a Pinter play where the importance lies in what is unsaid could be harder for audiences to relate to.

Jamie Lloyd

Director Jamie Lloyd


Pinter and his work have clearly had a profound effect on all the speakers, and his influence can be seen in a variety of different ways. But perhaps the main point to be taken away from this discussion is one made by Michael Billington: Pinter showed that theatre can be stripped away, "distilled to the absolute essentials", and be all the more effective for it - that people simply sat at a table talking could be completely gripping. When the dialogue is that strong, perhaps that's all you need: the actors, the words, and the audience.

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