The Collection - Premiere

Programme Cover

First presented by theRoyal Shakespeare Company, Aldwych Theatre, London, 18th June 1962

Harry - Michael Hordern
James - Kenneth Haigh
Stella - Barbara Murray
Bill - John Ronane

Directors - Peter Hall and Harold Pinter

Setting - Paul Anstee and John Bury

On the Fence between Farce and Tragedy
ëWeíve woven the net, and now we sit ñ caught in it.í The words belong to a character in Playing with Fire, the Strindberg curtain-raiser of the Royal Shakespeare Companyís new double bill, but they apply equally well to the situations in both plays. Both moreover, are poised precariously on the shaky fence which separates tragedy from farce, and both concern the intricate manoeuvres of a quartet of characters involved in a complicated amatory entanglement, in the Strindberg two men and two women, in the Pinter, a little more oddly, three men and one woman.
Mr. Pinterís piece, adapted by the author from his television play, is the more complex, and much the more compelling. The plot might well be pure farce. Stella tells her husband that while out of town at a fashion show in Leeds she slept with Bill, another young designer. The husband, James, sets out to terrorise Bill into admitting it: Bill at first denies everything, then agrees and boldly elaborates. Harry, Billís rich protector (well, this would not be quite the sort of farce Aunt Edna is used to, but let it pass), meanwhile goes and talks to Stella, who denies everything and says that James made it all up.

It might be a farce, but needless to say as Mr. Pinter goes about things it ends up as nothing of the sort; it becomes instead a cool, precise exposition of the thesis, recurrent in his drama, that full communication is impossible between human beings not so much because they cannot communicate ñ though that is sometimes true as well ñ as because they withdraw from communication; they deliberately and inescapably shield themselves from being wholly known ñ and therefore in the power of the knower ñ by retreating into equivocation, half-truth, untruth or in the last resort just plain silence. These particular characters are, as a matter of fact, perfectly articulate: far more than in any other of Mr. Pinterís plays. But if anything this only separates them more, since their powers of self-defence are consequently all the greater.

This is perhaps to treat over-ponderously a play which is slight, economical and, after all, often funny. As it happens there is perhaps the slightest suspicion that the author and his co-director, Mr. Peter Hall, have made precisely the same mistake, if mistake it be. One sees what they mean, of course: if it were more lightly and swiftly handled, it might too easily pass for a purely formal, artificial comedy and nothing else. Possibly, however, it could still be played a little more quickly, a line here and there could be thrown away, without the serious point being lost ñ one wonders if an author is always in this respect his own best directorial advocate. There can be no doubt at all, though, about the excellence of the performances Mr. Pinter and Mr. Hall have extracted from their distinguished cast; Mr. John Ronane in particular is quite devastatingly acute as the petulant slum-bred designer with just a thin veneer of upper-class English and plausible social graces, liable to crack in an instant if any pressure is exerted on it.

Playing with Fire, fluently translated by Mr. Michael Meyer and briskly directed by Mr. John Blatchley, is in contrast little more than a squib. It is easy to take it for more with hindsight derived from Strindbergís later works (it dates from 1892), but basically it seems to be merely an amiable deflation of various dramatic clichés current in its day, with a few unusually acute pieces of pre-Freudian psychology (particularly on the emotional stimulus provided by a third party to any love partnership) to help it along. Excellent performances from Mr. Colin Jeavons as the weak but cunning artist hero and Mr. Kenneth Haig as the stiff-necked would-be lover; stunning set by Mr. John Bury.
The Times, June 1962

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