Last night I went to the Harold Pinter Theatre to see three Pinter one-act plays performed back to back. Every time I’d seen the poster, ‘Pinter at the Pinter’ on the wall beside the Angel station escalator I’d think, “I have to go.”
I can’t go to plays for pleasure anymore. I spent too many years in theatre and now watching a play is only and always an exercise in figuring out how the players put the thing together. But I was excited nonetheless, because this was London, and the West End, and it was Pinter.
I’d picked up my ticket at the box office and was standing outside, watching people enter the theatre, drinking in the anticipation of the night, when a stranger poked my shoulder. She said, “What’s going on here?”
“It’s Pinter,”I said. “Plays.”
“We were just wondering what it’s about.” There was a man standing next to her and he nodded.
“It’s about life. The dark side of reality often. And human relationships.”
The woman looked at the man and he said, “Is it good?”
“Very good.” I said. “You could say Pinter is the quintessential modern English playwright.”
“Oh wow, so that’s who’s in there?”
“Well, not him personally.”
The man said, “We saw Tina Turner. That was really good.”
“Well then, I’m sure you’re really going to enjoy this.”
Was that mean? A little. I don’t have a lot of patience sometimes
It’s not that I’m a Pinter snob. But I do admire his work. I studied a couple of his plays at university and can appreciate how he was able to present complex ideas through ordinary moments. I left the couple to deliberate and joined the queue, and as I shuffled my way into the theatre I thought about what I would have liked to say to them, something like; ‘Imagine that everything you hear from the actors can be understood on at least three levels, the ordinary everyday level, then the level of unconscious fears and patterns you struggle with inwardly, and then on the level of the forces of nature no one has control over. And then there’s the fact it’s a live performance – the director and actors have made choices but there’s no guarantee they’ll pull off those intentions in the moment where anything can happen. And we all agree to suspend our disbelief and accept that the ‘play’ we’re watching is the only thing that matters and (maybe this is where I could have brought in Tina Turner) it’s all magic. And the magic can’t happen unless you’re there.’
Sweet words in London, they were everywhere. A few days earlier I’d happened upon a reading at a bookstore near Piccadilly. I hadn’t heard of the writer but it was an opportunity to listen to a published author talk about her book, to imagine myself up there answering the pointed questions of the interviewer and engaging with the audience. And then the writer talked about the responsibility of the reader and how writer’s and readers are in a relationship. She said, “When the writing is done and the book’s been published, then it becomes just this dead thing, words lying on a flat surface that don’t mean anything until the reader picks up the book and reads and breathes their life into the story.” Which reminded me of what Margaret Atwood said when I chatted with her at that coffee shop in Toronto, “Writing is the easy part, it’s getting people to read the thing, that’s the challenge.”
When it comes to books, I’ve become an unreliable reader.
I find it hard to be taken over by a story. I can’t just read anymore – I have to examine, find what’s been taken out of the original impulse, imagine what the writer had to write in order to sculpt a sentence into its most natural form
Now and then I can say, ‘Oh I see what you did there, how you make it all seem so easy.’ I want to look into their eyes and let them see me seeing them, inside them, inside their story, and say, ‘I admire your self-awareness. I admire your struggle to find the sweet words only the heart can know for sure.’
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