An Irishman, a Slovakian and an Israeli walk into a Harold Pinter play...pauses ensue. It’s not easy being Pinteresque. Irish actor and producer Philip O’Gorman has endured the hustle of fundraising via Indiegogo for a production of Pinter’s Old Times with its international cast at the Alchemical Theatre Laboratory. But with Classic Stage Company founder, Pulitzer Prize nominee and Pinter enthusiast Christopher Martin directing, those famous Pinter pauses should be worth hanging onto. StageBuddy sat down with Philip and Christopher to discuss the particulars that linger in and outside the silence.
Tell me about the conception of this production, how you all grouped together. Was it through HB Studio where you teach, Christopher?
Christopher Martin: Yes, originally, Philip and I, and Danielle [Shimshoni] who plays Anna. Kat [Vizina] who plays Kate works here [Alchemical]. I teach my classes here now. That’s how I know her. She was also a student of mine here.
Philip O’Gorman: And Danielle and I did Macbeth together, which Chris directed at HB, that’s how we all met.
And why did you choose Old Times?
Christopher: Philip wanted to do a play. He approached me. He suggested two plays, Uncle Vanya and Hedda Gabler. And the roles were Dr. Astrov in Uncle Vanya and Judge Brack in Hedda Gabler and I said, “Not on your life.” I spent too many years playing both those parts in my own productions of those plays at Classic Stage with probably about five years between them. I said, “Nah, I don’t wanna do that. In this kind of a situation, since I’ve already done big productions, let’s find something else." He said, “How about The Dumb Waiter by Pinter?” “Ah,” I said, “that’s too short a play, it’s very fifties. It’s kind of dated now, but Pinter, that’s a good idea!” And Patricia Fletcher who’s a dialect coach – our dialect coach, one of the top ones in the city -- was coaching Old Times for the Actors Studio. And I said, “That’s it! That’s one of the few Pinter plays I haven’t done.” I’ve done a lot of Pinter. And I never liked the play. And to teach Philip a lesson, I thought, this’ll be good. We’ll make him play in this play.
Philip: I balked at the idea at first. I was like, “No way!”
Christopher: He saw it at the Roundabout on Broadway last year. I didn’t see that production.
Philip: With Clive Owen...
Christopher: …Eve Best and Kelly Reilly.
That’s interesting because you’re a director and actor. That production was also directed by an actor, Douglas Hodge.
Christopher: Yes, the wrong director for the project probably. Doug is a very flamboyant actor and a very theatrical kind of guy. What I read about the production, which kept me from going to see it, was that it was too theatrical. The great thing about doing Pinter is the restraint. He’s not helping the audience at all. He says he writes his plays realistically but he’s not writing about realism.
And you're about to have a workshop here, at the Alchemical, a Pinter workshop, The Sound of Silence. Presumably that’s about Pinter’s notorious pauses. Given that you’ve directed other Pinter plays with the CSC, what have you learned over the years about the power of the pause?
Christopher: It’s exactly the opposite of Shakespeare which is the power of language. And the two playwrights I started with in 1963 were Shakespeare and Pinter. Right off the bat. I was in NYU at the time and everyone said, “No, that’s only advanced stuff, you’ve got to wait until you’re out and professional for 10, 15 years before you tackle either of those,” but they interested me. I saw The Caretaker, the original production when it came to New York from London in in 1961. It changed my life. I said, “Now I know what I want to do.” I knew I wanted to do Shakespeare, and I hated…hated modern theater. I saw that and said, “No, now I love modern theater.” Maybe what I was seeing was not modern enough for me. I couldn’t get enough of that play. So the first play I directed, ever, was The Caretaker. Not the Broadway production but when I was at school. They said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “The Caretaker.” They said, “No, too advanced, you can’t do that.”
Philip, when and how did you first become familiar with Pinter’s work and how has your relationship with that work changed, if at all?
Philip: I think he’s fascinating. I’m completely enthralled by him now. I would do more definitely but before - I mean I saw The Homecoming, the film version, and I hated it because it just gets under your skin. And I find it very very upsetting. And being a sensitive soul, I just I couldn’t cope with the misogyny in it. But now…this is amazing. To play it is amazing. To watch it is a completely different story. I think that’s the difference.
Christopher: To play Pinter is incredible. I saw the original Homecoming. Four of the six actors in the film were in the original, and I loved it. I said, “Give me more Pinter. Every year, send another one, please. I have to see more Pinter.”
Philip: And we worked on Pinter two years ago. Chris did a special class up at CAP21 Studios and I walked away from that and said, “I never ever want to touch him [Pinter] again.”
Christopher: It’s daunting for actors, especially if they’ve had American training, which is all about subtext and realism and the fourth wall.
Philip: What’s just happened, what’s about to happen, what’s your objective?
Christopher: Pinter writes every play as a three-act play, but he only gives you one act, the second, so you don’t know who anybody is or what’s going to happen to them. You only see what they do. The old three-act structure, the first act is exposition, you get to know the people, the background, now you’re ready to see the play. Now you see the action. Now you’ve seen the action, there’s a crisis and there’s a curtain and the intermission. And then you come back for the third act and wind up the play, everybody dies, everybody lives, they live happily ever after, whatever it is. Pinter just moved the outside acts and went for the second. It’s like coming in the middle of a film or a TV show…I don’t know what’s happening, and you try to decipher from what you’re seeing, what’s going on.
On the page, Old Times is very much a read-between-the-lines play. The language ranges from strained to uncomfortably intimate, allowing for huge variations in delivery. The characters can seem at once inquisitive and manipulative. There are also many interpretations of the play. And even Pinter said, when asked by Anthony Hopkins to explain the ending, “I don’t know. Just do it.”
Christopher: I saw that. He was uncomfortable right from the first line, It was clear he was not happy being there (laughs).
Do you think Pinter was being deliberately guarded when he said that to Hopkins?
Christopher: No. He was being typically Harold Pinter. I was at a seminar in 2001 that he gave at the Lincoln Center and somebody kept asking, “What are your plays about, Mr. Pinter?” And finally, he said, “Yes, what’s your question?” after the guy had done this six or seven times. He said, “What are your plays about?” And Pinter said, “Silly question. I’m not going to dignify it with an answer. Next.”
Did you perceive a version of events prior to or during the rehearsal?
Christopher: No. All his plays are exactly the same. Speech is a stratagem to cover nakedness. That’s what he calls it. And he’s right, that’s exactly what it is. The characters feel vulnerable, so they say something to cover this vulnerable insecure moment. At the beginning of The Homecoming, “What have you done with the scissors?” I played that part Max for five years at CSC. Not every night because I played twenty other shows there in that time, but five years, and I never got tired. And in every performance I found more.
Philip: Yes. There’s a line towards the end of the play that Kate, my wife Kate says that is just…. Given the upset of the entire experience of the night, you know, what’s happened with me and Anna and me and Kate and then the final straw that breaks the camel’s back is what Kate says at the end, that’s crushing. And because it’s twenty years of being with this fucking woman…
Christopher: Don’t print that (laughs).
Philip: …and you make a mistake when you’re a kid, like you’re a student and you get married and it’s all going to be happily ever after and twenty years later you’re like, is this fucking it? You know, that’s what it’s about. And then this woman comes along and she starts banging on about how wonderful their existence was and how wonderful her existence is. And of course, what happens, it gets my back up and I want to let loose, but I can’t because we’re in a social situation and, you know what the English are like. Nobody would ever permit themselves to say, “Get the fuck out of my house now!” I mean, in Ireland it might happen, but certainly not in England, but what is really interesting about this play is that all of the speeches, they’re not memory speeches. They’re about what’s happening right now at this moment.
Christopher: The characters are pretending to tell a story about the past, but what they’re doing is describing how they feel at this moment. He [Deeley] says, “What happened to me was this. I popped into a fleapit to see Odd Man Out.” I feel like I’m in a flea pit. I feel like the bloody odd man out. Just like the movie and that’s where he gets the idea. But the story’s not about seeing the movie at all. It’s describing how he feels at the moment. Pinter does that in every play that he has.
Philip: The play itself may not be linear but the thought process is very linear, as to what happens, because this happens and I react and then that happens and I react. And then I pry for more information and then I go, you fucking bitch! You know, it is brilliant.
Do you think that Pinter’s complicated love life and his quick temper had any influence on the material in Old Times?
Christopher: Oh absolutely, I mean, you see the plays he wrote for Vivien Merchant, his first wife, he starting writing them before they were married, but she was an absolute incredible actress in playing Pinter. Pinter is always writing from experience, even if it’s not personal experience. He began, he said, as a writer sitting in cafes with a cup of coffee or tea and listening to people at the other tables around him, and jotting down their conversation. He didn’t know who they were, or where they were going after they left. As I said, second act, just the action, and he’d find this wonderful, incredible theatrical atmosphere happening. That’s what he means when he says, “I write realistically but I’m not writing about realism.” In the normal sense as in what people expect. They say, what are your plays about? Well, they are about life. And when they’re played well, and I’ve seen a number of them played well…but I saw the original with Colin Blakely, Vivien Merchant and Dorothy Tutin. I didn’t like the play. I was still in my twenties then. I loved The Homecoming, I loved The Caretaker, and then this was his first full-length play after The Homecoming, and all of a sudden he wasn’t writing about North East London where he grew up. He wasn’t talking about his background. He was writing about his new life as a success in the theater with all kinds of awards and money and a big house. So he was writing about different people. I was disappointed I guess.
Christopher: It makes the play easier.
Christopher: Because their view of theater, their view of life, I dunno about this guy, I dunno about the Irish guy (laughs). As for the Slovakian and the Israeli, their view of reality is different from the American. They come with a different view of life. Certainly the Cold War and then the struggles after the Cold War when they finally became capitalistic. It makes them much more reserved in expressing emotion. Americans are heart on the sleeve all the time. We’re open. We tell you how we feel. That’s one of the wonderful things about America. But when you try to get people to not use that in the theater, it becomes difficult, because it’s our instinct. Like, it’s the instinct of British people to go to the words. You can’t get them as easily to express emotion because it’s part of being on a small island, respecting other people’s spaces. And an Israeli of course, they’ve got to be careful all the time (laughs). It’s a war zone half the time.
But you have a dialect coach for this play. Are the cast playing English?
Christopher: You want to ask Pat?
Patricia Fletcher (dialect coach): We’re heading toward standard British. I figured if people came from everywhere and moved to that country, they’d have a lot of similar sound changes, but I’d say we’re not being a hundred percent stringent. There are some sounds that’ll stay, like anybody who lives here.
Christopher: Like you, I mean you’re obviously not American. Philip has it, it’s disappearing in the two, three years that I’ve known him. It’s not as strong as it was when he first came here. But that happens. Just as if we speak another language in that country, hopefully our language skills will improve. But we decided, there’s no reason why Kate couldn’t be Slovakian, but she’d be trying to speak standard British. It would be O.K. if Anna was originally Israeli and is now speaking English.
Philip (in an English accent): I mean London is a great big melting pot for all nationalities.
Christopher: I mean, you listen to an American play. O.K., maybe not everybody has a foreign accent but they might as well if they’re from Texas or from New England or from the Deep South. They’re going to sound very different.
So, is the emphasis on them being English or that they sound as if they’re from more or less the same place?
Patricia: That they sound as if they’re from more or less the same place. And first, that they’re clear and they can be understood, and they’re honoring what Chris wants them to do. They’re basically in the same world.
Tell me about the challenges in getting this production together, the Indiegogo campaign, developing a website, setting up incentives etc.
Philip: Putting together Indiegogo was relatively easy and getting the perks together was relatively easy, but I think the problem today is that everybody has reached saturation point with crowdfunding platforms like Indiegogo. And theater I think is just historically difficult for people to get excited about, unless you’re in the theater world. And there’s so much out there, why would they choose to fund this as opposed to anything else? And they can’t really get a sense of what we’re doing, even though what we’re doing is amazing I think, because we can’t tape it, because we don’t have broadcasting rights. They are the hurdles that have to be overcome. That said, people have been incredibly generous and I’m surprised to date as what has been happening. We’ve been very lucky in that we have Sam Morris PR who’s working on our behalf, and he’s getting the New Yorker in and Time Magazine and WVOX Radio, so fingers crossed, touch wood, we will get some good reviews and that will generate a bit of excitement and people will hopefully want to be a part of something that’s successful. But given a choice, I would like to get financial backing next time.
How does Old Times relate to modern times? What can today’s audience with its mounting distractions and shrinking attention span take away from the strained relations and carefully placed pauses of a 45-year-old play?
Christopher: Damned if I know. It’s about human relationships. The play takes place in 1970, or '71 when it actually was first produced. It was written in honor of Peter Hall’s 40th birthday. Pinter was 40 that year too. Sort of like, we’ve passed a milestone, let’s write a play about where we are now. And they’re talking about 20 years earlier, which would have been late '40s, early '50s, a very different Britain. I knew it slightly. My first trip was in the sixties. And so I could make that connection between the Britain I first knew and what it must have been like in the post-war years. We’re not trying to play 1970/71 because you’d have to be 65 or 70 to understand what that was all about. We’re just playing it. It’s there, in a house, on the sea coast, that’s it. Make what you want of that.
Performances of Old Times continue through December 11.