Arts Pinter’s "In Other Rooms" at Divadlo Na Zábradlí
In this week’s Arts, I talk to David Peimer, professor of theatre at University College in the UK, also involved with the Pinter Centre for Performance and Creative Writing in London. In our interview Mr Peimer discusses In Other Rooms - a production in English of lesser-known short plays by the late Nobel Prize laureate Harold Pinter. While not as widely-known as Pinter’s most famous work, the short plays are highly recommended – and Czech audiences will have a chance to see them this weekend when the production, co-directed by Mr Peimer, comes to the Theatre on the Ballustrade in Prague.
“The Pinter Centre was set up for a number of reasons, one of them being to academically explore theatre and of course not just Pinter’s work. The second was to do professional work. We are just kick-starting the professional side of things and so we decided to produce his short plays written later in his life, as he wanted, because everybody knows his most famous ones like The Caretaker and The Birthday Party and so on. And very, very few people know these plays: some of them are just five minutes long, and some of them 15 or 20 and so on. We chose seven plays which have a through line of the more political or absurd plays. Some of them are very funny and witty but also have a darker side.
“We put them together within the overall dramaturgy of Party Time. That’s the first play and it is this sort of satire of the British upper class, those people who are having a party while all sorts of other devious things are happening all around. And all these plays come out of this experience and the idea is to show this surface veneer of British society but that underneath other things are going on: it could be violence, it could be torture, or something else.
“These plays are more social rather than just being very personal and they are very short. They are short ‘snapshots’, if you like.”
Some of the details which you describe there are something that Pinter’s readers or theatre-goers will be very familiar with: comic menace, threat. Do you think that this aspect of them being more political or short and more pointed is something that will surprise viewers?
“I hope so: I think it’s still ‘comedy of menace’ and the reaction so far – on our eight city tour of Europe, after Prague it goes to Berlin – has been incredibly positive because people don’t know these plays and they see the humour in how he satirises the British upper class but also what he calls the New World Order. You know for example, you can feel ‘menace’ even just giving a press conference; or you can have a taxi driver talking to his boss – so it’s not just political at all.”
When The Caretaker was first produced, I believe it was 1961, and when Pinter broke onto the British scene, a lot of these elements were very new and shocking. Do you think that these later plays basically update those elements for today? I guess what I’m asking is, is Pinter more relevant today even than in the 1960s or 70s?
“I think that’s a really interesting question and what we are hoping for, and one of the reasons why we chose these plays, is partly the economic crisis happening around the world. People are questioning what is the world order? What is really going on? And not only with the bankers but everywhere with globalisation: some things are very good but it’s what’s happening in the dark corners which is funny and grotesque. I think that he is relevant now because of what is going on in the world and he did move with the times and I think he foresaw what was coming, in a way?”
When you began putting the production together, what were some of the first things that you built upon?
“Beyond the through line of the party – and I should say the plays were co-directed by myself and Robert Gordon, the director of the Pinter Centre – it is about those who can’t get in, who are excluded. They may be stuck in a prison or on the road somewhere else or ending a relationship breaking down or beginning a new one. It is the people who are not part of the hypocritical upper class social world contrasted with those who are.”
If we discuss the venue, Prague’s Divadlo Na Zabradlí is a theatre where you have directed plays in the past. How do you view it as a site for this particular project?
“Aside from its amazing history, this is a theatre which has a lot of potential. I hope that they continue doing the kinds of work that they have been doing and that they used to do: groundbreaking new material, different things, different styles, works in English, directors from other countries, open to the world while being rooted in Prague. But for us it is something really special.
“I am South African originally and there is a theatre in Johannesburg – the Market Theatre – which has a similar reputation because it also was the one theatre where we stood up against the Apartheid system. It was banned and many things happened to it, so there are these theatres around the world that have this international reputation.”
Czech playwright Václav Havel, former dissident and president – of course has long ties with Divadlo Na Zabradlí... Would you say that Havel explored similar areas as Mr Pinter, were there any similarities between their plays?
“I think definitely. But it’s worth noting that Havel and Pinter were close friends. During the communist period Pinter, along with other playwrights, really tried to lobby for Havel’s release, to help – he was active. In terms of the plays I think that the only major difference was that Mr Havel wrote more from the ‘lived’ experience of the absurd whereas with Pinter it’s almost a philosophical question. I mean, he was living in a democracy and not under a communist system. But there are areas where they meet.
“The other big difference is that Mr Pinter really tried to really cut down and absolutely minimise the language, whereas Havel came from a more literary tradition. For him the word and the language are more important. For Pinter it was ‘just the one phrase’.
“Regarding the word ‘absurd’ it can be a little misleading when applied to both: it wasn’t all dark or heavy: there are very funny or witty moments and strangeness and mystery. One other thing to note is that Mr Pinter had been an actor, so he was very aware of dramatic structure and playing with dramatic humour and tension. That changed the way he wrote.”
If you’re in Prague don’t miss the opportunity to see In Other Rooms on either Saturday or Sunday, October 15 and 16, at Divadlo na Zábradlí. Find out about tickets for either afternoon or evening performances at www.nazabradli.cz