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Matt Gavan has published 3 articles

The Hothouse - Actor's blog, Week 1

Hothouse lead Matt Gavan talks about his experience of Pinter and the Playhouse
Matt Gavan on Tuesday 17th January 2012
Photograph: Arthur Laidlaw

Student productions of Pinter plays are like embarrassing covers of Radiohead tracks by that obnoxious religious family down your road. Heavy-handed and accidentally over-sexualised. The only dramatists who suffer similar butcherings at the hands of undergraduates are Shakespeare (three hours of versed droning, offset only by the prospect of a good snog or a nice bit of mutilation) and Chekhov. At least with Shakespeare there’s the well-trod route of the experimental revamp. “Let’s set it in the 50s!” they say, “I just love the clothes from that era! That atmosphere of repression and austerity lends itself so well to Measure for Measure/ Romeo and Juliet/ The Merry Wives of Windsor”. It’s frequently asinine, but it usually involves cutting some of the play, which is always welcome.

The main problem students have with Pinter is that he comes with a complex of clichés. Chief among these are the (snore) Pinter-pauses. Everyone asks about these, because everyone’s heard about them. This is irritating because the plays themselves make unobtrusive, if frequent, use of pauses. I mean, pauses aren’t that unusual in drama. Or in life. It’s just a cessation of dialogue, after all. People in every art form, and in reality, do momentarily stop talking. But no, they say, no – Pinter turned the pause into an art-form, a mode of expression in itself. Thump, thump, thump, snap. Students are particularly poorly equipped to deal with issues like this because, across the humanities and sciences, we’re pushed towards analysis, not synthesis. We’re trained to talk about the patterns underlying the play, its causes rather than its effects. This is death to theatre, whose focus is always on effects, on the character which springs from the raw material of the text. Analysis can trick you into acting badly while Doing Everything Right. You know how a certain line should be said, know how to contort your face at a certain moment, know when to shout and when to whimper. Big whoop. The Ox Stu says it’s “the finest student show we’ve seen in years”. You’ve got the play right in the palm of your intellect, and you’ve squeezed it until the pips squeaked. You know, deep down, that you’ve killed it, that what you’re doing is fake, a sham, an insult to the text. But hey, what does it matter? You can go and have a natter with your friends in the pub while you try to ignore that whirring sound at the back of your head, where the play is spinning in its shallow, sandy grave.

Pinter’s plays make this phenomenon particularly difficult to repress. He plays with ambiguity, with verbal idiosyncrasy. Idioms which flow so freely in casual conversation catch in his character’s mouths.  Everything is more meaningful, more laden with Thought, than it is in more naturalistic drama. I know how to do this line, you think, I’ll lower my voice and sexily growl. That’ll be funny. It makes sense of it, you think. And you go on making sense, and making sense, and the character wanders off, and it’s not supposed to matter because the Oxford Times said that you had a “demonic charisma”. Thump, thump, thump, snap.

So why bother? If you’re attempting to properly act, to act with truth and imaginative courage, fully embodying someone you aren’t but might have been, then why not go for an easier playwright? Like Dennis Kelly. Or Simon Stephens. There’s less room to fake it with them – people frequently say precisely what they mean. You might just get some Proper Acting done. Well, because Pinter is the master. It’s challenge impossible for the arrogant to resist. Arrogant because you know you can do it better, do it properly, overcome the insuperable odds. That’s what we’re trying to do. I’ll be blogging for the next three weeks to let you know how we’re getting along.

Matt Gavan is starring as Root in The Hothouse, by Harold Pinter, Oxford Playhouse from 1st-4th February.

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