Sunday 24 September 2017

Arts with Sophie Gorman: When Harold Pinter met Michael Colgan

Robin Lefevre, Harold Pinter and Michael Colgan at a read through of the Homecoming in the Gate in 2001.
Robin Lefevre, Harold Pinter and Michael Colgan at a read through of the Homecoming in the Gate in 2001.
Bindings by Paul Seawright as part of the exhibition The List at the Kerlin Gallery, Dublin
Eddi Reader is coming to the Hawk's Well Theatre in Sligo

Sophie Gorman

The long, close friendship between Nobel Prize-winning playwright, actor and director Harold Pinter and Irish theatre impresario Michael Colgan produced many of Irish theatre's greatest moments, all of them on the Gate stage where Michael is chief. And now his most famous play, The Caretaker, has its inaugural Gate performance next Tuesday. But it was a friendship that almost never happened.

"I first met Harold in 1979 when I was then director of the Dublin Theatre Festival. I had invited Close of Play by Simon Gray to come to the festival as a British National Theatre production," Colgan says. "That was in April, but then in September didn't the IRA blow up Lord Mountbatten and I received a phone call to say the cast had decided not to come to Dublin. There was a meeting that very evening in the boardroom of the National chaired by the director of the play, Mr Harold Pinter.

"I was urged to attend if I thought there was any chance of rescuing this. So I got on a plane and ran across London, arriving only five minutes late, quite chuffed with myself. I walked into the room, whereupon my hero, Mr Pinter, looked at his watch and said 'Ah, you made it. Now tell me why we should come to Dublin.' I looked straight at him and said 'because you have a contract and I have come here to hear why you have decided not to come'.

"It was the first time I had experienced that Harold Pinter stare, more of a glower really, and it went on forever. Clearly we weren't going to be friends. He then announced he was going to be the impartial chairman for the meeting before adding, impartially, 'you know, it is very hard to act when you've had your legs blown off'.

"Long story short, the play came to Dublin, so I went up to him and said 'thank you for bringing the show to Dublin' and he replied 'thank you for fighting for it'. By then I was a huge fan of his, I went to anything he was involved in. And then, in 1993, I put on the first Pinter Festival in the Gate." These sworn enemies had become friends? "Yes, we became very close. A friendship that mattered."

Pinter died on Christmas Eve in 2008 and two weeks before that, on December 10, he was made president of Central School of Speech and Drama. Michael was asked by Pinter to deliver the citation. Michael opened that speech with the line: "Let me tell you something about your president. He is a man who has continually demonstrated extraordinary courage, a searing social conscience and the greatest integrity. And it is those qualities that have made him for me, and many like me, the greatest British playwright for centuries."

Over the years of friendship, Michael experienced the softer side of Pinter that often remained hidden behind that aforementioned glower.

"He had no small talk and that was the problem. He wasn't a people person in that respect. I remember once meeting him for a glass of wine in the Merrion Hotel and he said to the waitress 'may I have a glass of gavi for my friend?', and she innocently replied 'no problem'. He snapped back 'what? I wasn't anticipating that there would be a problem'. And that was his way, he had a literal sense that would often get him into trouble. He treasured words and would not tolerate when they were misused. But he could be very sweet and caring, or maybe it seemed sweeter because it was so rare.

"I loved working on his plays because it meant that I worked with him, it was very much collaboration. And what is very curious about putting on The Caretaker now is that it is the first time I have produced a Pinter play without him, which is in itself emotional.

"What people often didn't realise about him was that he was very funny. He loved women, which I do. He loved theatre, which I do. We had a similar taste in actors. And he normally got his way. The best thing that happened to him was marrying Antonia Fraser, she is a brilliant intellectual and she understood how Harold worked.

"He actually spoke to me about his funeral. He told me he wanted to have very few there, just six people. And he wanted to get two actors, Penelope Wilton and Michael Gambon. He wanted Gambon to reads some Yeats, but I told him I thought it would be better for him to read the good ghost speech from No Man's Land. Then he wanted to give Penelope the speech from Betrayal. And I said 'no, she should do that closing speech from The Dead' and then he barked 'Michael, whose fucking funeral is it?' There was that black humour. There was a great line he himself used to say, but I think it should be said of him, Harold was a man of iron and of gold."

gatetheatre.ie

 

EXHIBIT A

One of these houses is not like the others. To put it mildly. Driving by at speed, you might just see a row of white houses, with their pointed roofs, but slow down and the middle 'house' is revealed to be a tent-like shed with huge sheets of industrial white plastic and heavy rope holding it together.

This picture by Northern Irish photographer Paul Seawright has for obvious reasons earned the name Bindings and it is part of a new exhibition of his work, The List, currently on display at the Kerlin Gallery, Dublin (kerlingallery.com).

Seawright has focussed his lens here on America's rust belt. This is the term for a post-industrial patchwork of areas in the northeast and midwest states that were originally called the foundry of the state or the manufacturing belt, but earned their new tarnished name after globalisation shutdown their industry and they suffered huge urban neglect.

Seawright's pictures here document departure and dereliction. People are present only in the things that they have left behind, the images instead focus on abandoned vehicles, rusty fences, frayed clapboard homes. This is a world that is both vacant and claustrophobic.

Seawright is Belfast born and much of his earlier work was from his hometown. In the late 80s, he created a famous series called Sectarian Murders, where he photographed the sites of killings around Belfast, and paired the images with newspaper reports from the period. Crucially, he removed all references to the victim's religion, highlighting the human loss of the Troubles.

 

SOPHIE'S CHOICE

1 Call me an old romantic, but I am giving you three unusual things to do on Valentine's Day. First up is Young Hearts Run Free's Tinsmith's Scoop in the atmospheric Freemasons Hall. The line-up includes readings and music by Kevin Barry, Declan Kiberd, Paula Meehan, I am the Cosmos and Withered Hand. youngheartsrunfree.ie.

2 How better to spend Valentine's night than in the company of the wonderful Scottish songsmith Eddi Reader. Eddi was the wonderful voice behind Fairground Attraction's catchy hit 'Perfect', but her solo shows are mesmerising and you and your true love can be bewitched at Sligo's Hawk's Well Theatre on Saturday. hawkswell.com.

3 Falling in love is like getting hit over the head, or at least that's what I've been told, so PJ Gallagher's new comedy show Concussion will be just the thing. A likeable rascal, PJ is a familiar face from television shows such as Naked Camera and he will be making his debut at Cork's Everyman with this brand new show. everymancork.com.

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