Harold Pinter
Harold Pinter
"I love theater that presents riddles," says Nigel Redden, director of the Lincoln Center Festival. He is explaining why the annual festival has focused attention this year on the work of Harold Pinter. The celebratory event, which continues through July 29, is presenting nine plays by the eminent British playwright. And, as anyone who is familiar with his work will attest, Pinter is a master at weaving ambiguity and mystery into the most commonplace situations, gestures, and dialogue.

When Lincoln Center began planning this Pinter Festival some two and half years ago, a key requirement was to obtain the active participation of the playwright, who celebrated his 70th birthday last October. "Given that Pinter is a director and an actor as well as a playwright, it was essential that he be involved," says Redden. With the support of Michael Colgan, artistic director of Dublin's Gate Theater, the Lincoln Center Festival was able to pull off the coup of representing Pinter in all three of those areas while also showcasing his work as a screenwriter in a concurrent film festival.

Colgan and The Gate Theater had helped organize and produce the enormously successful Beckett Festival which launched the first Lincoln Center Festival in 1996. At the Gate, Colgan had organized two previous Pinter showcases and established a close relationship with the writer. Colgan is the curator of the Lincoln Center Pinter marathon as well. But unlike his previous efforts, which were entirely produced by the Gate, this festival includes productions from the Royal Court and the Almeida Theater--two prominent English theater companies that have had fruitful collaborations with Pinter in the past decade.

Once assured of Colgan and Redden's commitment and dedication, Pinter became very involved in the planning for the Lincoln Center project. It was he who suggested that the double bill comprising his earliest work, The Room (1957), and his newest, Celebration (2000), be included in the festival. Colgan recommended the addition of the Royal Court double bill of Mountain Language and Ashes to Ashes that opened in London last month.

The Gate Theater produced the first two offerings of the New York festival: A Kind of Alaska and One for the Road in a double bill, and a new production of The Homecoming. The opening selection marked the New York acting debut of the playwright himself in One for the Road. Pinter, who first became involved in the theater as an actor in the 1950s, has on occasion performed in his own works since achieving fame as a playwright. He appeared in a 1997 production of The Collection that was part of one of the Gate sponsored Pinter festivals, the 1992 Almeida production of No Man's Land, and the 1995 Chichester Festival production of Hothouse. But to persuade him to perform in New York was "extremely difficult," reports Redden. "He was perfectly happy for us to do it without him." The payoff, of course, was priceless.

In One for the Road, Pinter played the sinister head of a government organization specializing in interrogation and torture. Suave, menacing, sneering, and silkily sadistic, he portrayed a character that one might say is the embodiment of a particular kind of male that has popped up in his work since The Birthday Party--one that can justly be called Pinteresque. "The greatest guide to playing a dramatist is to listen to the tone of his voice in ordinary life," noted Peter Hall who has directed a fair share of Pinter premieres. There was electricity in the air at Alice Tully Hall last week during the performance of One for the Road as the audience watched Pinter give a master class in playing Pinter.

One for the Road, written in 1984, marks a kind of turning point in Pinter's career. From here onwards, his plays have become significantly shorter and more pointedly political. His active participation in human rights causes is generally attributed to the shift in his writing at this point; the 40-minute Mountain Language, also included in the festival, marks the refinement of Pinter's reaction to the horrors of state-sponsored torture and inhumanity.

Ian Holm and Jason O?Mara in The Homecoming
(Photo: Stephanie Berger)
Ian Holm and Jason O?Mara in The Homecoming
(Photo: Stephanie Berger)
The high point of the festival so far has unquestionably been the Gate Theater's razor-sharp production of The Homecoming. This 1964 black comedy about a truly perverse and amoral family marks an earlier peak in Pinter's career; mundane scenes of domesticity belie a dangerous power struggle between the family and the woman who has been brought in by the eldest son. Director Robin Lefevre expertly reveals the cesspool that lies buried just under the surface of a cozy North London sitting room. According to Redden, Pinter himself accorded this production the highest accolade, saying that he doesn't expect ever to see a better one. In a uniformly superb ensemble cast, Lia Williams and Ian Holm played the two leads with remarkable precision. Seventy year-old Holm, who played the crusty patriarch, originated the part of son Lenny (Ian Hart at Lincoln Center) in the 1964 London premiere production and won a Tony Award for that same role in a Broadway transfer the following season.

Although The Homecoming represents director Lefevre's first Pinter production, many of the other artists involved in the Lincoln Center festival have very strong links with the writer. Director Karel Reisz, who is represented by A Kind of Alaska and Landscape also directed the American premiere of Ashes to Ashes at the Roundabout and the movie version of The French Lieutenant's Woman, adapted for the screen by Pinter. Actress Penelope Wilton, who gives a tour de force as a woman woken up from a coma in A Kind of Alaska, participated in the two previous Gate Theater Pinter festivals and appeared in the first production of Pinter's Betrayal in 1978. But it is Henry Woolf, performer of The Room and the Gate Theater production Monologue, who has the longest association with the playwright: They grew up and went to school together. In fact, Woolf can take credit for starting Pinter on his playwriting career. The young Pinter had only acted in plays and written poetry until his friend suggested he write a one-act play for a group of students; the result was The Room, which Woolf directed in 1957.

In conjunction with the plays, the Lincoln Center Pinter Festival also includes "The Spaces Between the Words," a series of 10 movies written by Pinter. Two of them are film versions of his own plays: Betrayal (1983) with Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Hodge; and The Homecoming (1973), directed by Peter Hall (who first directed it on stage) and starring Cyril Cusak and Ian Holm. All the other movies are Pinter adaptations of others' work: his three masterly screenplays for Joseph Losey (The Servant, Accident, and The Go-Between) as well as The Pumpkin Eater, The Quiller Memorandum and The Comfort of Strangers. At Pinter's request, two television movies not previously screened in America were also included in the series: Langrishe Go Down (with Jeremy Irons and Judi Dench) and The Heat of the Day (with Michael Gambon and Peggy Ashcroft).

The Pinter Festival comes on the heels of the recent Broadway revival of Betrayal and may be followed by an American transfer of the Royal National Theater production of The Caretaker that starred Michael Gambon. The celebration just doesn't seem to end. "I do feel that Harold's work talks to a contemporary sensibility," says Redden. "He just turned 70, and there seems to be this continuing stream of younger people who are fascinated by his work." The sold out signs at the Pinter Festival venues around Lincoln Center bear him out.

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[For further information, click here to go to the Lincoln Center Festival page of the website www.lincolncenter.org]