A Kind Of Alaska / A Slight Ache
Gate Theatre, London W11
Opened 30 March, 2006

Earlier this month, Harold Pinter was presented with the Europe Theatre Prize; in the last twelve months he has also won the Wilfred Owen Poetry Prize and the Franz Kafka Prize as well, of course, as the Nobel Prize for Literature. How is his homeland honouring him? A small pub theatre a few hundred yards from his home is staging two of his one-act plays. The Gate Theatre has a well-deserved global reputation, but nevertheless it’s a paltry amount of recognition. Compare the major retrospective currently at the Barbican to mark the centenary of Samuel Beckett’s birth.

It’s an instructive comparison in other ways. Pinter’s A Kind Of Alaska (1982) could almost have been written by his Irish counterpart. Deborah, awakening from 29 years of catatonia since the age of 16 (the play was inspired by Dr Oliver Sacks’ book Awakenings), is recognisably Pinterian in her mixture of bewilderment and flirtatious girlish chatter, grotesque in a middle-aged woman; but the spare, patterned responses of her doctor and the sister she can hardly recognise, and the equally stark hospital-bed setting, give the piece a distinctly Beckettian look and sound in Claire Lovett and Thea Sharrock’s production. Anna Calder-Marshall is excellent, finding a wealth of nuance whilst acting with little more than her voice and eyes; she is supported by Niall Buggy and Diana Hardcastle.

After the interval, we travel back in time almost as far as Deborah to A Slight Ache (1958). Like a number of Pinter’s early works, it is very much in the vein of contemporary British Absurdism. As Edward and Flora converse at the breakfast table about the convolvulus by the shed or the wasp in the marmalade (a much smaller-scale cousin of the famous weasel in the cocktail cabinet), there is little of the sinister disquiet one associates with the writer. This note is subsequently sounded in Edward’s growing obsession with the match-seller who pointlessly haunts their back gate, and whom the couple eventually invite in. Hugo Thurston stands or sits there mute and immobile, face hidden by a balaclava, whilst Hardcastle and Michael Byrne treat him as a tabula rasa for Edward and Flora’s fantasies and fears. The final reversal is a pre-echo of the end of The Homecoming several years later. The pairing of plays serves as a fine dégustation of Pinter, but when will we offer the full menu he merits?

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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