Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2009
"Pinter pause Pinter pause Pinter pause"
- Eric Tucker in his poem/director's note for Pinter's Mirror
Can you believe I actually tried to prepare for this review? What WAS I thinking? Preparing for Pinter. Thereís a title for an absurdist play if I ever heard one.
There is no way to prepare for Harold Pinterís (1930-2008) writing, you just have to go and take from it what you can.
In the British-born husband and wife team of Malcolm and Elizabeth Ingram, Shakespeare & Company has the perfect Pinter pair. Two of the three one-act plays that make up the program billed as Pinterís Mirror (if Pinter held a mirror up to humanity it was a funhouse mirror) are perfect for them. The third and last is an example of why many people, including me, donít trust Pinter as a playwright, but more on that later.
The first half of the program consists of Pinterís early play A Slight Ache. Written as a radio program in 1959, the same year Pinter wrote The Dumb Waiter and The Caretaker, it was adapted for the stage in 1961. On the radio the piece required two actors. On stage it requires three. That is because one of the characters, the Matchseller (Stephen Pilkington), is completely silent. There is a difference between the absence of a voice on the radio and the presence of a mute character on stage. In the radio version you could ponder whether or not the Matchseller really existed, on stage you have to accept that he does and so the play becomes all about him (Who is he? Why is he there? Has he been there before? What, if anything, does he want?) rather than about Edward (Malcolm Ingram) and Flora (Elizabeth Ingram) who do all the talking.
Edward and Flora are very, very British; very, very of their time (the 1950ís); and very, very married. The opening scene with them breakfasting together in the garden on Midsummerís Day is delightful, but the sun sets on even the longest day of the year (though considerably later in England than in America) and with the waning of the day comes the arrival of the Matchseller and the gathering gloom he brings into Edward and Floraís life and marriage.
Under Eric Tuckerís direction all three actors are excellent here, but Elizabeth Ingram, in her pivotal scene with the Matchseller, is really breathtaking. Pilkington, completely swathed in filthy rags, does a remarkable job of conveying a menacing presence without speaking and barely moving. Edwardís reaction to the Matchseller is more enigmatic, but Malcolm Ingram brings it poignantly to life
The second half of the program opens with Family Voices which Pinter also originally wrote as a radio drama in 1980 and was subsequently adapted for the stage and presented the following year on the same bill as the third play in this program, Victoria Station, and A Kind of Alaska, which eclipsed the other two pieces with its brilliance.
Like Brian Frielís Faith Healer currently on the Unicorn Stage at the BTF, Family Voices is a series of monologues for two men and a woman, one of whom is dead. But unlike Faith Healer the three characters are all on stage throughout, and their monologues, written as a series of letters that are probably never delivered...or mailed...or even committed to paper in the first place, alternate. And it is much, much shorter.
Here Pilkington, fresh scrubbed and looking impossibly young, plays the son of the Ingramsí characters. The play is obviously about the failure of family members to communicate, but it also has some delightful absurdist flights of fancy, which Pilkington delivers in winning style, as if things like that happened every day. Elizabeth Ingram is a fine Everymother, and Malcolm Ingram seems to be enjoying the afterlife.
I wonder if Harold Pinter is currently hearing a dog barking?
You can love Pinter or hate him, but A Slight Ache and Family Voices are strong little plays in distinctive Pinter style representing two different phases of his life and career. Family Voices and Victoria Station, along with other plays Pinter wrote in the early 1980ís are grouped together as his Dream Plays. Family Voices is a very telling dream indeed considering Pinter himself was going through the bitter conclusion of his first marriage and embarking on his second marriage into a large and querulous clan of the British nobility.
Victoria Station on the other hand, is a perfect example of Why Gail Hates Pinter. Being a short and insipid dialogue between a dim-witted London cab driver and his dispatcher, it is complete piece of dreck. Better short plays are presented at high school playwriting festivals every day. The writing is lazy and stupid and pointless. Here only Pilkingtonís bright smile and blank shiny eyes make the piece worth watching. I personally would have walked out, as Malcolm Ingramís character eventually does, after about the first three minutes. (Elizabeth Ingram is thankfully spared from having to appear in this one.)
I know we are in a season of austerity, but the complete lack of set here (what was set designer Kiki Smith paid for exactly??) is embarrassing. I understand that the focus is supposed to be all on the language, and two of these were radio plays or voice dramas, but since Shakespeare & Company has chosen to present them on stage with these fine actors and charge $22-$38 per ticket and all I felt like there should be something more on stage then a half-dozen mismatched chairs and a drab, colorless backdrop the sole purpose of which is to cover any other sets that might be hanging (several other shows are being presented in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre during the long run of Pinterís Mirror.)
Luckily Greg Solomonís lighting design is on the mark, as are Megan Moriartyís costumes, and they add what little color there is to the piece.
You either love Pinter or hate him, but the Ingrams obviously love him and this is a project that they have long been wanting to present. They are worth seeing, and Tucker, a substitute for long-time Shakespeare & Company director Normi Noel, makes a fine Berkshire debut. If you are a real Pinter devotee, this is an excellent chance to see three of his more obscure works brilliantly acted.
Shakespeare & Company's production of Pinter's Mirror: A Slight Ache, Family Voices, and Victoria Station will be performed through August 2 in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre on the Kemble Street campus in Lenox, MA. The entire program runs just under two hours with one intermission and is suitable for Pinter lovers ages 14 and up.
The Bernstein is air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible. Performances in the evenings run at 8:30 p.m. and in the afternoons at 3:00 p.m. Tickets range from $12 to $48. For a complete listing of productions and schedules, to inquire about student, Senior, Berkshire resident and Rush Tix, or to receive a brochure, please visit the website at www.shakespeare.org or call the Box Office at (413) 637-3353. For group visits, contact Group Sales Manager Victoria Vining at (413) 637-1199 ext. 132.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009