Harold Pinter and Nicholas Hytner

He’s a fucking fine actor,” said Harold about the actor who had just ruined an otherwise excellent production. “It’s a fucking hard job, acting. I’ve done it. Fucking hard. Tell him if he can’t remember the line to make it up. He knows what he’s doing. Tell him to make it up.”

Nicholas Hytner’s vivid accounts of two striking interactions with Harold Pinter are the standout highlights from his memoir, Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at London’s National Theatre. These revealing episodes will thrill devotees of the great and temperamental playwright.

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During late rehearsals for a 2007 revival of Pinter’s The Hothouse, director Ian Rickson was concerned about one actor’s inability to remember the lines. Hytner had worked with this reliable actor before and was confident that he’d be fine once he got before an audience.

At the first preview, the poor actor fell to pieces. During the first half he must have taken forty prompts. It was one of the most difficult nights I’ve ever spent in the theater…During the second half he dried even more.

At a post-show dinner with Rickson and Pinter, “There was a long dreadful silence.” Then Pinter delivered that sympathetic observation. Encouraged by Pinter’s support, the actor improved the next night. “The night after he was word perfect. He never dried again, and was as excellent as the rest of the production.”

Harold Pinter was famously irascible and famously precise about each word, pause and punctuation mark in every one of his plays that together make up the most important body of work in post-war British theatre. But this is what happened at the first preview of The Hothouse, and it is my contribution to Pinter studies.

The other contribution took place previously. In 2002, as he was assuming his post, Hytner was keen to put on a Pinter work. Pinter proposed a revival of his 30-minute play, Celebration paired with an early one-act. This program had already been done two years earlier at another theater. Hytner didn’t care for this proposal. “…I prevaricated, and told him it was an interesting idea. Peter Hall could have said no to his face. I wasn’t yet up to it.”

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Nicholas Hytner in rehearsal. (Photo credit: Johan Persson)

In 2005, before Pinter had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Hytner was having dinner at a restaurant with the designer Bob Crowley, who had designed Celebration. Pinter was also having dinner there with his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser. Eventually she left. Then, “…suddenly Harold was bearing down on me.”

“You’re a fucking liar,” he shouted. The entire restaurant went silent. “You’re a fucking liar and you’re a fucking shit.” I had no idea what to say, so I said nothing.

“You told me you would revive Celebration at the National Theatre,” said Harold, quieter now, but with Pinteresque menace. “You told me you’d put it in a double bill with The Room. You’re a liar and a shit.”

“I’m really sorry if I gave you that impression, Harold,” I said meekly. “That wasn’t my intention. I’m genuinely sorry.”

“Don’t fucking apologize to me,” roared Harold. “I’m not interested in your fucking apology. You’re a shit and a liar, and now I’ve fucking told you.” And he left the restaurant.

Bob waited for all of the other tables to stop looking at us. “Rite of passage,” he said. “You can’t call yourself a director of the National Theatre until Harold Pinter has called you a shit.”

The rest of Balancing Acts is an amiable and concise behind the scenes chronicle of the years 2003 to 2015, when Hytner was the artistic director of the National Theatre. This was the era of The History BoysWar HorseOne Man, Two Guvnors and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. There were also many productions that did were not as popular and these are analyzed as well. Selling tickets to 20 shows a year was a perpetual concern.

Hynter’s long and close working relationship and friendship with Alan Bennett is warmly detailed. Besides the back story of The Lady in the Van, there are other amusing Maggie Smith anecdotes.

Before Hynter and Smith (to play Lady Bracknell of course) began work on The Importance of Being Earnest, they visited John Gielgud for lunch to hear that legend’s reminiscences of his productions of it. Gielgud recited Jack Worthing’s speeches from memory, and was critical of how Edith Evans’ monumental performance as Lady Bracknell, “distorted it…all the audience cared about was Edith. The king and queen came to see it 1946. Still Edith.”

Before taking over the National, Miss SaigonCarousel and The Madness of George III were some of Hytner’s directorial successes that are covered in the book.

There are colorful sketches of Hytner’s colleagues such as John Wood, Nigel Hawthorne, Michael Gambon, Richard Griffiths, David Hare, Simon Russell Beale, Helen Mirren, James Corden and Tom Stoppard.

His predecessors Peter Hall and Richard Eyre were in charge of the National during the more eventful times of the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s. Their written accounts, Hall’s Diaries and Eyre’s National Service both understandably contain more intrigue.

Still, Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at London’s National Theatre is a worthy addition to the niche of memoirs by theatrical artistic directors.

Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at London’s National Theatre
by Nicholas Hytner

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

Hardcover, $28.95 (312 pages)

 

Entertaining Mr. Sloane

Riotous performances, inspired staging and striking design, all make this an exquisite revival of Joe Orton’s 1964 subversive, black comedy masterpiece,Entertaining Mr. Sloane.

Mr. Sloane is a sexy, muscular, 20-year-old man, who grew up in an orphanage.  He shows up at at a rundown, London house and rents a room from the slatternly, 42-year-old Kath.  After his moving in, their relationship deepens.

Kath’s elderly, poor-sighted father vaguely remembers Sloane as the possible perpetrator of a violent crime.  Her upright, single and prosperous brother Ed wants to mentor him, and more.

You know what they say about landladies?  

No, Eddie. 

They say they’d sleep with a broom handle in trousers, that’s what they say.

The dialogue is in the crisp style of Oscar Wilde and Noël Coward but twisted, and the premise is in the vein of Harold Pinter’s comedies of menace.  Orton takes these theatrical influences and carves out his own territory where the British class system and heteronormativity are skewered and where homosexuality is preferred.

Director Craig Smith’s propulsive staging gloriously renders Orton’s vision of anti-Establishment mayhem. There’s a hilarious simulated sex sequence that takes place behind a sofa.  A vicious beating has the verve of Stanley Kubrick’s “Singin’ in the Rain” violence in A Clockwork Orange, with assistance from Greg Pragel’s accomplished fight choreography.

Kissing becomes a powerful visual motif. The actors are precisely placed, and minutely pace about the stage.  Every joke uproariously lands, especially those about false teeth.  The casting is perfection.

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The buxom Elise Stone delightfully revel’s in Kath’s dottiness and sensuality.  Ms. Stone’s raucous performance is a wonderful model of comic earthiness combined with affective, dramatic depth.

When he makes his entrance as Ed, Antonio Edwards Suarez, dressed in shades of gray, jolts the hysteria further.  With a deliberate, slow and clipped, lower-class British accent, the glowering Mr. Suarez seems like he wandered on from Pinter’s The Homecoming, which premiered the following year.  Suarez delivers Orton’s misogynistic bromides with brio. In depicting the character’s pent up lust for men, he unleashes waves of emotion with a lingering glance.  It’s a fully shaded and commanding characterization.

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Bellowing and hobbling around on a cane, the bearded John Lenartz is marvelous as the befuddled patriarch Kemp, nicknamed “Dadda.” Mr. Lenartz adeptly shifts gears, when setting aside comedy during his one on one confrontation with Sloane.  It’s like the heroines of Night Must Fall and Sorry, Wrong Number being trapped with their tormentors due to Lenartz’s wide-eyed terror.

That this production has such an ideal Sloane puts it into the stratosphere.  With his sculpted physique, prevalent musculature and chiseled features that recall the young Malcolm MacDowell (who played the role in a 1975 London revival), Matt Baguth is mesmerizing.  Speaking in a whispery, low, lightly accented voice, Mr. Baguth commands attention.  Whether wearing Mod clothing or encased in black leather, and a tight white T-shirt, Baguth vividly captures the predatory nature of this youthful interloper with sly conviction.

The stage is set with an assortment of worn furniture and bric-a-brac that authentically presents a shabby sitting room.  Surrounding this area are mounds of stuffed, black trash bags.  These are the atmospheric features of Tony Mulanix’s terrific scenic design.

The living room’s back wall occasionally has projections of Kerem SmithStone’s eerie video design that shows the stylized locale with clouds and gritty, abstract, industrial footage.  It’s a subtle, high-tech touch.

Mr. Mulanix is also responsible for the stunning lighting design that often has striking shadows on the actor’s faces, and fluctuating brightness that intensely illuminates the actions.

Gorgeously evoking the time period is the sensational costume design of Debbi Hobson.  Sloane’s Mod apparel and iconic leather ensemble are realized with sartorial flourishes.  Ed’s gray suit could be from a British gangster film about The Krays.  Sequined high heel shoes, an orange dress, loud floral prints, brooches, and a grand coat are all part of Kath’s suitably flamboyant ensemble.  Dadda’s grimy outfit looks like it has the aroma of old age.

Ellen Mandel’s lively original music has the pop sound of the era, but it’s overused.  It borders on being a film score, rather then as incidental music for a play.  Ms. Mandel’s sound design could periodically benefit from a lower volume, as it comes close to overpowering the voices of the actors in a few places.

“I have long admired Joe Orton…These are great plays that have had a lasting influence on modern theater,” eloquently writes Smith in the program’s Director’s Notes.  Until his male lover murdered him with a hammer in 1967, at the age of 34, Orton was briefly a foremost and supreme playwright.  “He was a bloody marvelous writer,” said Harold Pinter in his eulogy.

First performed in London during the Swinging Sixties and Beatlemania, Entertaining Mr. Sloane was of the zeitgeist of sexual expression, creative fashion and a cheeky attitude toward authority.  This superb production affirms its enduring stature as a work of provocative dramatic literature.

Entertaining Mr. Sloane (through May 14, 2017)

Phoenix Theatre Ensemble

The Wild Project, 195 E. 3rd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.phoenixtheatreensemble.org

Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

Photo credits: Gerry Goodstein

In 1981, I saw the monumental revival of Entertaining Mr. Sloane, at The Cherry Lane Theatre.  Besides his phenomenal performance in the title role, Maxwell Caulfield also caused a sensation for briefly appearing frontally nude.  Joseph Maher, Barbara Byrne and Gwyllum Evans were also awesome, all under John Tillenger’s dazzling direction.

Sloane Poster

 

This one of my most memorable theater experiences and it felt euphoric that this production was comparable.  It’s a great play.

In 2016, Mr. Caulfield was appearing in the creepy thriller, Tryst, at The Promenade Theatre.  I went to see it and I brought along the window card for Entertaining Mr. Sloane, that I bought at The Broadway Flea Market.

After the show, I waited outside the stage door, along with a nice sized group of fans.

I presented the poster for him to sign.

“Oh, you couldn’t have seen that!” he graciously said to me.  His eyes brightened at the sight of this memento of that long ago glory.