By the time that Harold Pinter was awarded both the Nobel Prize for Literature and France’s Légion d’Honneur in 2005, he had been long regarded as one of the most important playwrights of the late 20th century. Many of his works – including The Homecoming, which won the 1967 Tony Award for Best Play, Betrayal, The Caretaker and The Birthday Party – were already being performed by theatre companies both grand and humble all over the world.
Pinter was also a prolific and celebrated screenwriter, adapting his own and others’ work to great acclaim and earning a couple of Oscar nominations. He had a 50-year acting career (portraying villains by preference), and a respectable string of directing gigs as well. And his divorce from actress Vivien Merchant, estrangement from his son Daniel and affair with and subsequent marriage to Lady Antonia Fraser kept the British gossip columnists busy for a good long while.
But it was largely Pinter’s history of antiwar activism that aroused public controversy, and his Nobel was attacked in some quarters as politically motivated. A registered Conscientious Objector and supporter of nuclear disarmament, Pinter argued during the Cold War that Western critics of Eastern-bloc totalitarianism had a moral obligation to apply the same strict standards of judgment to the oppressive behaviors of their own governmental systems. He was an outspoken opponent of apartheid, the blockade of Cuba, NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia and America’s armed intervention in Nicaragua, Afghanistan and, most vociferously, Iraq. Though Jewish himself, he championed the rights of Palestinians in Israel; and he traveled widely as an ambassador of PEN International seeking to free writers who had been imprisoned and tortured by their governments.
It was in the latter capacity, in the mid-1980s, that Pinter became familiar with Turkey’s campaign to suppress use of the Kurdish language. This situation became the subject matter of his play Mountain Language (1988), which will be performed along with four other Pinter one-acters by the Cocoon Actors’ Theater of Rhinebeck for three weekends beginning this Friday.
Also on the program will be two others of his more blatantly political works, Press Conference (2002) and One for the Road (1984), as well as two of his so-called “memory plays”: A Kind of Alaska (1982), which originally starred Judi Dench in the central role of a woman waking from a 29-year coma; and Victoria Station (1982), in whose 1984 London production the author himself played the maddeningly uncooperative taxi driver.
The folks at Cocoon, under the direction of Marguerite San Millan, will link the five short plays using dramatized excerpts from the playwright’s famously incendiary Nobel acceptance speech as a wraparound device. Already under treatment for the cancer that would claim his life three years later, Pinter was unable to attend the awards ceremony in person and had to tape his Nobel Lecture at a London studio. But he still managed to channel his political rage, calling the US invasion of Iraq “an arbitrary military action inspired by a series of lies upon lies and gross manipulation of the media and therefore of the public” and condemning the British government’s role in the occupation.
All in all, this is sure to prove a provocative evening of theatre. The performers will include Tracy Carney, Nancy Graham, Jim S. Granger, Martine King, Philip Legare, Isaac Levine, Penelope Milford, Regina Perrone, Andres and Isabel San Millan, John Schmitz and Douglas Woolley. Cocoon co-founder/co-director Andres San Millan also did the set design, recreating the ruins of a French chateau.
The production of Other Places: Five One-Act Plays by Pinter will run Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. from March 8 through 24 at the Cocoon Theatre in Rhinebeck. The price of admission for all performances is $25, and seating is limited. You can reserve by phone at (845) 876-6470, and pay at the door by cash or check. Please note that some of the material may not be appropriate for children.
Other Places: Five One-Act Plays by Pinter, Fridays/Saturdays, March 8, 9, 15, 16, 22, 23, 8 p.m., Sundays, March 10, 17, 24, 3 p.m., $25, Cocoon Theatre, 6384 Mill Street (Route 9), Rhinebeck; (845) 876-6470, https://www.cocoontheatre.org.