Harold Pinter is indeed in town – Turin, that is, if you didn’t spot the last entry – whom I saw in his hotel bar late last night, holding court with a party around him whom, as my colleague Alastair Macaulay pointed out as we sat on the other side of the bar, looked happy: Pinter’s company clearly breeds contentment He is visibly frailer and more shrunken that the robust figure of old, but still dapper and on his feet again, at least, since sustaining a fall in Dublin last October on his way home from the Gate Theatre’s celebration of his work to mark his 75th birthday, which rendered him unable to travel in turn to Stockholm to deliver his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in person when the call came that he’d received it just days after getting home from Ireland.
But this morning he was on the stage of what surely has to be one of the world’s most beautiful theatres, the nearly 300-year-old Teatro Carignano, to be interviewed before a packed house by Michael Billington. Such public events with Pinter are a rarity nowadays – I can’t remember the last time he did one in the UK, though at yesterday’s conference, one of the speakers enumerated some 125 newspaper interviews this famously reticent writer has given over the years, which as Billington wittily remarked had once led Pinter’s wife Antonia Fraser to comment, “Oh Harold, another of your exclusive interviews!”
Today, however, really was an exclusive, and with Billington’s gentle nudges, Pinter spoke at length and in detail about his recent bouts of illness since that fall – “life has been literally full of ups and downs” – but also about a rare skin condition that hails from the Brazilian jungle, though he’s never in fact been anywhere near it, but which left him in intensive care, “on the point of death for the first time”. He described this brush with mortality — that manifested itself in a great difficulty to breath — as similar to drowning: “you’re caught in a current that you cannot control and is controlling you”. Asked if he was aware of what was happening, he replied, “There’s no time to think – you don’t think at all, you just experience it. You’re desperately fighting to stay alive – to insist on breathing, and not to lose the ability to breath.”
As a result, in order to record the Nobel lecture, he was taken by wheelchair from the hospital to the studio, and then back to the hospital, never leaving his wheelchair. Billington referred to how his energy visibly rose as his moral indignation fired him up, and Pinter replied that his speech definitely “grew in intensity as it went along”, and raised once again a theme that has lately been preoccupying him, to do with the US foreign policy (entirely to do with serving its own interests, not those of the countries it is affecting) and Britain’s own recent role in supporting it. “Blair’s subservience to Bush is shameful and disgusting and also more than that, a disinclination to even accept the fact that if one drops bombs on thousands of people in a sovereign state, whatever you think of that state, is an act of mass murder and a war crime.” Asked what politicians he didn’t feel contempt for, Pinter replied, “I had a high regard for Robin Cook, but he died very sadly; he was an admirable man.”
In a reversal of the order of his Nobel Prize speech, having dealt with the politics, Pinter was then asked to turn to the process of writing; and what is conscious and unconscious in it. It seems that for Pinter the process happens outside of himself to begin with: “One of the most exciting parts of writing is finding the life of characters you’ve never met before; you’ve got to let them have their own life.” With The Homecoming, he pointed out, “I really didn’t know what was going to happen. As I found these two figures in a room, I had no idea what was going to happen to either of them.” Once the characters lead the way – in this case, it was the wife, Ruth, whom he calls “one of my favourite characters” — he is only then able to intervene: “I work hard on the text once I’ve got it to a certain point.”
Politics, of course, has been a big part of Pinter’s life and more recent work, and Billington quizzed him on other political writers, from Brecht (“I admire him very much; a terrific poet and an important figure”) to David Hare (“Stuff Happens was a very good piece of work, and so was The Permanent Way; I admire his rigour and honesty and his insistence on looking for truth”). The question turned next to the subject of verbatim theatre and the suppression of My Name is Rachel Corrie, constructed from the own words of the late peace protestor who died under an American-made bulldozer in Israel, whose imminent New York run was cancelled at the last moment; Pinter called that “a clear case of self-censorship” amidst a political atmosphere of the “suppression of dissent and the suppression of truth”. In the case of Behzti, the play that was cancelled in the midst of its run at Birmingham Rep following public protests outside the theatre, Pinter called that “mob rule”. Beyond the world of the theatre, Pinter also cited the case of a woman, arrested for reading out the names of the British army war dead outside Parliament, “to remind those inside parliament that they were responsible for those deaths”.
Finally, Billington referred to Pinter’s rich body of plays, films and poetry, and asked him if the urge to put pen to paper was still strong inside him. “It’s a question of form; I find myself moved more towards writing poetry now.” He’s not ruled out further plays completely, “but it’s unlikely more are going to arrive. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: I’ve written 29 damn plays; isn’t that enough? But I will be writing poetry till I conk out.” And is theatre still relevant? “Theatre has a unique, singular kind of excitement as no other media can or does. The mere fact of it being alive – there’s life on stage and in the audience – rather than a recorded experience of it like film or TV, there’s nothing like it. So I have a shaky faith in it still.”