A Kind of Alaska - Premiere

Programme Cover

First produced at the Cottesloe Theatre, October 1982
Family Voices and Victoria Station, the two other plays in this collection, or go to the complete Other Places

Deborah - Judi Dench
Hornby - Paul Rodgers
Pauline - Anna Massey

Directed by Peter Hall

Design and Lighting - John Bury
Stage Manager - John Caulfield
Staff Director - Kenneth Mackintosh
Production Manager - Jason Barnes

Time Passing
Benedict Nightingale
The eminent author of The Caretaker and Betrayal writes so rarely for the stage these days that he would only have to squiggle a couple of lines of dialogue across a steamed-up bathroom window for the worldís theatrical scholars to roar in with fingerprint powder and glass-cutting equipment; and Other Places gives the burgeoning Pinter-industry rather more reason for excitement than that. True, one-third of the triple-bill mounted by Peter hall at the Cottesloe has been seen before, and, true, another third is not a lot more than an anecdote about a minicab controller first puzzled, then enraged, and finally converted to a sort of demented camaraderie by a driver who wonít move from Crystal Palace. Yet even Victoria Station, as this is called, could have been written by absolutely nobody else. Many sensed dramatic possibilities in those disembodied bleatings, drifting from sleazy shop-fronts in Canning Town to Cortinas in Fulham or Chiswick; but only Pinter could bring to such an exchange the interest in mutual manipulation, the banality yet strangeness of language, place and event, the unpindownable sense of unease, that leaves you wondering if you arenít actually hearing two sceptres playing out their last rituals in an empty, airless and conceivably post-devaluation London.

Judi Dench and Anna Massey

It is the final third, A Kind of Alaska, that demands most attention, however. For the first time in his stage career, Pinter has acknowledged a source, and it turns out to be a curious one, a series of case-reports on patients struck down by Encephalitis Lethargica in the early decades of this century and re-activated in the late sixties by the drug L-DOPA. But Oliver Sacks, the American doctor who played Prince Charming to these Sleeping beauties, is an unusual man, passionate, inquiring and supremely literate, as much metaphysician as medico; and his Awakenings is an astonishing book, a riveting chronicle of how just a few were rescued, sometimes briefly, sometimes more lastingly, from what is variously described as ëan icy hopelessness akin to serenityí, ëthe motionless eye of a vortexí, ëa bottomlessly deep abyss of beingí, ëan unfathomable, black and hungry holeí and, simply, ënothingnessí. Anyone would be interested, and perhaps especially Pinter, who has always concentrated at least as much on the submerged nine-tenths of the human personality as on the one-tenths that breaks the surface, and since Landscape and Silence in 1969 has made a special study of those areas of the mind in which memory has its sometimes blurred, sometimes surprisingly sharp existence.

So he stages an awakening, by a doctor (Paul Rogers) as caring as sacks of a patient (Judi Dench) whose disappearance into limbo appears to have been more instant and absolute than any in Awakenings itself. Perhaps the nearest experience to hers is that of Rose R., who dreamed at age 21 she was a statue imprisoned in a castle, became almost exactly that for the next half-century, and, restored to reality in hospital, was never able fully to accept it wasnít still 1926. Similarly, Pinterís Deborah, revived from a still profounder silence after 29 years, babbles on about mummy and daddy, the dog, her boy-friend, and other human furniture of her 16-year-old consciousness. Once or twice she lets slip an erotic thought, like several of Slacksís patients. At another moment she develops the Parkinsonian tic so common among them, and begins to speak of wallsí closing iní on her. She has, she says, been trapped in a vast series of glass halls, listening to a tap endlessly dripping, dancing night after night ëin the most crushing of spacesí. And gradually she moves from frank disbelief to an understanding that sheís spent the whole of her prime in a sort of rococo Butlins imagined by herself.

Judi Dench in A Kind of Alaska

Pinter writes with taste and tact, as well as with that precision we all associate with him; but an unsettling question still demands to be asked. Why dig this bizarre case-history out of the archives? What can it appeal to in us, except a somewhat morbid interest in sensational medicine? By way of answering that, let me turn briefly to Family Voices. When I saw this in a ëplatformí performance two years ago, I was reminded of Pinterís own Homecoming, at he end of which a professorís wife allows her husbandís family to put her ëon the gameí rather than return with him to the aridity of campus life; and I still see some similar thrust in the playís two parallel monologues, the mother imploring her son to return to what sounds like a drearily conventional homestead, the son rattling happily on about the strange and sinister population of the lodgings I which he now lives. Better danger, surprise, sex, sweat, perversion, life, than the comfortable prison-house of childhood.
In short, Family Voices is about the exhilaration of growing up, discovering yourself. But that is, of course, a temporary exhilaration one that insidiously declines into regret for the ever-accelerating years. A Kind of Alaska, I think, is about precisely that, the sorrow of growing old. For Pinterís Deborah, the past is not barren or desiccated, but packed with love, hope, clamour, conflict, life; and Judi Denchís gaping dismay as she begins to realise sheís lost it, her numb grey face under her cropped, grey hair, will surely set off echoes in many, and not just in the nostalgic or immature, those who would clamber back into the womb if they could. The play is an admittedly extreme metaphor for a feeling we must all have at times. Where did time go? What did I do while it was passing? Why did I make so little of it? It is Pinterís version of Hopkinsís marvellous poem ëMargaret, Are You grieving?í, and ends on a not-dissimilar note of resignation, acceptance. Dr Sackís Rose r. retreated into waking coma rather than live with her loss: Pinterís imaginary Deborah looks at her middle-aged sister, sums up the few facts she now knows, and declares, with poignant dignity, ëI think I have the matter in perspective. Thank youí. Itís a moving close to what, so far from being exploitative horror-story from the locked ward, actually becomes a quiet, unpretentious tribute to human courage and resilience.
The New Statesman, 22nd October 1982
© The New Statesman 2001

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