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Pinter moments

Michael Kustow remembers three moments with Harold Pinter

November 1, 2005
2 min read

1. He agreed to appear at an event I was putting on at the ICA in 1968, comparing different translations of the Bible. He came, of course, as an actor, an impeccable professional. He read from the Book of Revelation: ‘And there followed another angel, saying, Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.’ In his searing voice, you could hear the same wrath I now hear when he lays into murderous Superpowers.

But in the same programme I gave him to read the greatest love-poem in the Bible, the Song of Songs: ‘Stay with me flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.’ His voice was a caress of tenderness. The fury, the tenacity, makes him a fighter; the tenderness reminds us he is a poet.

2. When he and I worked at the National Theatre, he agreed to read other people’s poetry once a year, on the Olivier Theatre stage. The first time I chose Louis Macneice’s Autumn Journal (1939), that lyric diary of a man on the threshold of a war. MacNeice’s speaker, like a documentarist in verse, sees peace collapse around him in a hundred details. Harold, dry-voiced, found the horror of what lay ahead in these simple lines:

As I go out I see a windscreen-wiper

In an empty car

Wiping away like mad and I feel astounded

That things have gone so far.

3. The pleasure of witnessing Harold’s irascibility. (And doubtless the pain of being on its receiving end). At one planning meeting of the National Theatre directorate, Jonathan Miller put forward his iconoclastic plan for a new production of The Importance of Being Earnest. His idea, he announced, was to have Lady Bracknell played by a man. He illustrated this at some length with examples of ambiguities in the text, homosexuality and the treatment of women in Victorian times. The room fell silent. Then Harold cuttingly said, ‘Jonathan, if Oscar Wilde had wanted Lady Bracknell to be played by a man, he would have fucking said so.’

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