Pinter in Rehearsal
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I was 23 and working in London at the River Café. I was a cashier: my friend, Katherine Tozer, an actress, was on the telephones. We were both in work but ‘out of work.’ In an act of typical generosity, our boss, Ruthie Rogers, suggested we make our London debut by putting on a play in her house – a Richard Rogers designed epic space. She could do bruschettas, and invite her friends. We jumped at the offer. I chose Pinter’s two-hander: Ashes to Ashes.

I wrote to Pinter, asking permission, and got a call from his secretary. Pinter wanted to meet. I stood, extremely nervous and one hour early, in Campden Hill Square. It was early summer and I was wearing sandals and a green silk shirt. When I finally buzzed the door, I was so adrenalised all I remember of Pinter’s study was a blur of brown – it could have been velvet or leather – and a round curved mirror up on the wall, the type which shows you if there is a car coming fast at you round a corner. I sat on a sofa opposite Pinter and we discussed the play. He was charming. To my surprise, he was easy to talk to. So much so, I ventured to ask about one of the most enigmatic moments, for me, in the play: if the noise of the siren, that so distresses the woman, relates in some symbolic way to the crying baby at the end of the play. Pinter simply changed the subject. But the meeting, otherwise, was a success. Pinter asked for only two things: that he attend a final rehearsal; and that he invite a small list of his own friends to the event.

We hadn’t yet cast the other part. My father said he’d seen a brilliant actor called Elliot Levey perform unforgettably in a student production in Oxford. I rang Elliot’s agent and offered him the part unseen.

Three weeks of extremely testing rehearsals followed. Levels of anxiety in the cast were high. Kathy and I combined shifts in the restaurant with rehearsals in the echoing space of the Rogers’s Chelsea home. Elliot was a brilliant actor, but nervous. He was older than me and had no idea if I could direct. It became apparent that people were keen to see us novices perform a Pinter play in the Rogers’s house in a way that frankly, they would never have been in a more conventional venue. Kathy’s agent insisted we invite the great and the good, including Peter Hall and Richard Eyre, and everyone, to our terror, said yes.

I had only directed two plays before, at University. Ashes to Ashes is a holocaust trauma piece, the husband prowling around the edges of what could be his wife’s sexual fantasy, a true traumatic memory, an inherited ‘folk’ memory of the holocaust, or a combination of all three.

REBECCA

Oh by the way somebody told me the other day that there’s a condition known as mental elephantiasis.

DEVLIN

What do you mean, ‘somebody told you’? What do you mean, ‘the other day’? What are you talking about?

The dramatic situation, as it often does, replicated itself in the rehearsal room. Elliot prowled and worried unhappily around the enigma of the woman’s agenda. What the hell did the play mean? There were many arguments. Rationing myself strictly, I rang Pinter a couple of times for help. To my excitement, some of my hunches proved to be right. Sometimes, simple things. For instance, there is little mileage for moving about in the play – the woman is seated, the man is standing. But, as I thought, there was one point where the woman could get up.

REBECCA

That’s funny, somewhere in a dream…a long time ago…I heard someone calling me sweetheart.

Pause

I looked up. I’d been dreaming. I don’t know whether I looked up in the dream or as I opened my eyes. But in this dream a voice was calling. That I’m certain of. This voice was calling me. It was calling me sweetheart.

Pause

Yes.

Pause

I walked out into the frozen city. Even the mud was frozen. And the snow was a funny colour. It wasn’t white…

I was thrilled that Pinter agreed with me that this was where the woman should, for the first time in the play, stand. But then there were arguments about pauses. Elliot distrusted them. He felt his character would speak if left hanging about by the woman. We chiselled over every breath. Did Kathy really have to take a pause if, for instance, there were dot dot dots in the text? I said yes. Elliot said no. Again, I rang Pinter for support. Yes, Pinter said, patiently. If there were dot dot dots it was a good idea to mark them with a slight pause. Triumphantly, I went back to Elliott with this news. Elliott said Pinter was wrong.

But somehow, the play began to take shape. One day, near the end of rehearsals, rather like whipping cream, simply through sheer repetition, the play stiffened and at last found its tone and shape. Both the actors felt it – the mixture of play, speed, ease and unease needed to make the piece sing. Not through any skill of mine, but simply, as Pinter has said, through ‘saying the fucking lines.’ It was time for Pinter’s dress rehearsal.

We sat miserably, waiting in the Rogers’s great atrium. Strict instructions had been given to the fleet of Rogers’s extended family and loyal staff to stay clear and above all, guard against any interruption or noise. Periodically, we looked out of the window for Pinter. Finally, at the far end of the road, we saw him approaching, in a beige mac, tinted glasses and black trousers. Elliot, who is Jewish, said ‘He looks just like my uncle.’

Pinter sat on a chair in the huge, high-ceilinged reception room. We began the play. It was highly artificial. I’ve never seen two actors more nervous. They had lost all their ease. No one was thinking about the play. All any of us could think of was the man sitting watching it. Then, suddenly, I heard the unmistakeable sounds of someone start to do the washing up, a door away. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t interrupt the performance. It continued, getting noisier. Suddenly Harold spoke.

‘I’m sorry, but this is just impossible.’

We looked at him. Did he mean the acting?

He gestured towards the washing up noise. ‘What is that? Can you tell them to stop?

I bolted through to the scullery and found Ruthie’s Brazilian cleaning lady, Rosa, at the sink. I told her to leave it. I terrified her. We started again. The actors were transformed. I think we all felt it couldn’t be that bad: Pinter hadn’t told us to stop altogether.

Then Pinter gave his notes. They were detailed, clear, and basic. He liked it. He wanted certain words to be more audible. That was it. He also suggested we do a dress for a trial audience the day before the show (invaluable advice).

As a result, on the night itself, neither of the actors was as nervous as that afternoon. No one could be a more intimidating audience than Pinter’s audience of one. We sat, waiting, in the studio flat below the Roger’s house, listening to the tramp of the guests arriving above. The actors both prepared in different ways. Kathy had a bath and a glass of wine. Elliot had a crap.

We had set hired chairs out for the audience in semi-circular rows, with a small playing area at the centre, but people also sat up the suspended flight of steel stairs to the mezzanine, and along the mezzanine itself, where we had focused a couple of lights. When everyone had arrived, been given a drink and finally seated (Pinter sat on a stool at the end of the brushed steel breakfast bar) the actors entered and the play began.

We had timed the play to start at dusk to enhance the effect (requested in the stage directions) of the lights getting brighter as the stage gets darker, until, by the end of the play, the lamps are burning brightly but the room is very dark. The play ends with the woman’s every line repeated by a faraway echo; the trauma she has tapped into echoes through the ages. We had hired a sound system and pre-recorded the echo of Kathy’s voice.

REBECCA

I took my baby and wrapped it in my shawl

ECHO

My shawl

REBECCA

And I made it into a bundle

ECHO

A bundle

REBECCA

And I held it under my left arm

ECHO

My left arm

Pause

REBECCA

And I went through with my baby

ECHO

My baby

Pause

REBECCA

But the baby cried out

ECHO

Cried out

REBECCA

And the man called me back

ECHO

Called me back

REBECCA

And he said what do you have there

ECHO

Have there

REBECCA

He stretched out his hand for the bundle

ECHO

For the bundle

REBECCA

And I gave him the bundle

ECHO

The bundle

REBECCA

And that’s the last time I held the bundle

ECHO

The bundle

Silence

In front of an audience, it was very powerful. Afterwards, Pinter made a speech referring to me as ‘the cat’s whiskers’ and, after a few drinks, told Matthew Evans, then the chairman of Faber & Faber, to fuck off because he hadn’t yet read his new play.

The next day I received a parcel and a letter of thanks. It was Pinter’s new play – Celebration. Set in a high-end restaurant, the action cuts between two tables: a bickering couple, Suki and Russell, and a wedding anniversary of two couples – two sisters who have married two brothers. The characters are boozed up, violent, vulgar and funny. They are tended to by a smooth maitre d’, his sexy maitresse d’, and a waiter who continually interrupts the tables to recite long lists of literary celebrities his grandfather knew. Pinter said this was based on an experience of his own, when working as a waiter. He overheard a conversation on a table about T S Eliot, which he dared to interrupt. He was sacked the same day.

Pinter, in his note to me, said he was going to direct the play himself, at the Almeida, in a double bill with the first play he ever wrote – The Room. I immediately rang him on his now familiar office number to congratulate him on the play, and to ask if there was any way I could sit in on rehearsals and watch him direct it. Pinter said he did have an idea. He didn’t say what. Did we girls both want to meet him for lunch and discuss? Kathy and I, broke as ever, decided we must treat Pinter to the River Café (staff got a discount). We sat outside, Pinter’s glasses dark black in the sunshine. He explained he couldn’t use me as his assistant director, because he always used the same assistant, Gari Jones. And he couldn’t give Kathy a role; the play was already fully cast. However, the play was set in a restaurant. Plates would need to be cleared, drinks bought on. Would we like two non-speaking roles as waitresses? Sitting there in the River Cafe, the irony was not lost on us. I was thrilled but terrified. I’d never worked as a waitress, only a cashier, because my hands shook and I was intimidated by clearing plates in front of tables of high end River Café customers. How much worse, balancing plates in front of a sell-out audience at the Almeida? Plus, I got stage fright. I decided then and there I would take beta-blockers. Kathy, as a fledgling actress, had the opposite reaction. She was a tiny bit disappointed that this was the extent of our challenge from Pinter. For the next month, we prepared. I learned how to carry a pile of plates on my wrist. And I got a prescription for beta-blockers.

The first day of rehearsals. Kathy and I turned up at 108 Upper Street. To get to the kitchen and coffee, you had to go from the rehearsal room up a fire escape outside in the rain. Daunted, we eyed the starry cast, which included Lindsay Duncan, milling about – and looked at all the makeshift props laid out ready for us: unmatching plates, a jumble of cutlery. There was a circle of chairs set out for the read-through, salvaged from old shows, some gilt, shabby and ornate, others plastic. The grandest chair sat behind a big desk at the top of the circle. I asked Harold if that was his chair. It was.

Susie Wooldridge and Lindsay Duncan were playing the sisters in Celebration: Andy de la Tour and Keith Allen were playing the brothers. Lia Williams and Steven Pacey were playing the bickering couple on the other table. Lia, Lindsay, Keith, and Steven were also in The Room, Lindsay playing the lead, Rose, Stephen her violent husband Bert, Keith and Lia the spiky couple, the Sands, who knock on the door enquiring about a room. And then there were two more actors who only appeared in The Room. George Harris was a hugely tall African, playing the enigmatic figure ‘Riley’ who tries to rescue Rose from her claustrophobic ‘room’ at the end of the play. And Henry Woolf was playing the eccentric landlord ‘Mr Kidd’. Henry was a friend of Harold’s from his Hackney days, and had directed the first performance of The Room, at Bristol University in 1957. He had also originally played Mr Kidd. He had come over from Canada especially to reprise his old part, for which he was now exactly the right age. He was a tiny man, and highly excited. On the rainy fire escape, he turned to me and said incongruously ‘Isn’t this fun??’ When everyone seemed to have arrived, we stood around in a circle, said our names, there was a slight pause, and Harold said – ‘And I’m Harold Pinter.’

Only one actor hadn’t turned up. Keith Allen. After Ian McDiarmid had made a speech welcoming our greatest living playwright, and pointed out he was playing alongside our greatest dead playwright (the Almeida were rehearsing Richard II and Coriolanus with Ralph Fiennes for their Gainsborough studios), we simply sat and waited for Keith. I felt a strange reversal taking place. From everyone’s tremendous respect and fear of Pinter at the start of the morning, there began to grow a definite feeling of this greatest living playwright…being ‘cheeked’. 10.30, 10.45, 11.00 ticked by…finally Keith turned up. We sat down and read through both plays.

Privately, I thought that The Room dragged a little. But Celebration was highly entertaining, and I could already see how good the cast would be. Some had a way to go: Keith Allen muttered his way through the script. But Thomas Wheatley, who played the maitre d’, had exactly the right expensive voice, and was the spitting image of Jeremy King, the actual owner of the Ivy. And Indira Varma, a gorgeous young half-Asian actress, read the sexy maitresse d’ with great aplomb. Harold only rebuked us once – asking everyone to turn the pages of their scripts more quietly. His final words to the company that day were ‘I don’t think it is too early to say this – there is no word in this play…’ he paused, and for a delirious moment, I thought he was going to say, ‘which cannot be changed if you find it difficult to say’, but he continued, ‘…which cannot be heard. As soon as a word is lost, the energy is lost.’ I thought this must have been tactfully aimed at the muttering Keith Allen. Altogether, the day had a strict feel to it.

It soon became apparent that there were different rules for Harold Pinter as director. The actors had to run before they could walk. By the second day, the actors were not only up on their feet, script in hand, but working with props! I particularly felt for Lindsay Duncan, who, as the down-trodden housewife in The Room, has endless ‘business’ ministering to her husband while he reads a comic: buttering him slices of bread, pouring him tea, getting his jacket…again, the situation in the rehearsal room echoed the scene, with Lindsay ministering to Harold, clarifying every detail: ‘So does she shake the salt over his plate or tip it in a little pile at the side? How thickly does he have his bread buttered? Does he have sauce with his bacon?’ Harold said of Rose ‘She’s like his mother…in fact, I wish my mum had taken as good care of me.’

‘She did,’ said Henry Woolf.

‘That’s right, she did,’ said Harold.

Harold had a sharp eye for these props. ‘Could we have a square biscuit tin? And it would be lump sugar in the tea, definitely.’

‘Do you want tongs?’ asked the stage manager.

‘Tongs?’ said Pinter. ‘What do you think this is, darling? The Ritz?’

While there was a feeling of being part of a privileged family within the rehearsal room, indulged by Harold, ire was still reserved for the world beyond. The administrative staff of the theatre were housed in the rooms next door to us. Harold was highly sensitive to noise. In fact there was very little noise from people outside – they had been warned – but the thermostat heater in the rehearsal room, which made a range of noises, irked Harold, and was soon switched off. One day, we found it back on again. The A S M apologetically explained she’d just discovered that it heated the whole building – so when we had been switching it off, everyone in the offices had been plunged into cold. Harold was unrepentant. ‘Rehearsal rooms should try to behave as theatres. What you wouldn’t tolerate in a theatre, you shouldn’t tolerate in a rehearsal room. Fair’s fair.’

The heater was switched off.

And yet, sometimes there were factors beyond anyone’s control. One day, when we had reached the tense stage of running the play, there was the ear-splitting noise of something being rent by an electric saw outside. At the end of the run, Harold asked, dangerously, ‘Yes – who was that?’ No one answered. Then Keith said, ‘I think it was Richard Eyre.’

Harold’s charisma and presence were palpable. I watched every minute of rehearsals for both plays, and was never once bored. Afterwards, as an assistant director watching other directors at work, I realised how rare this is. Not only was Harold charismatic: he was funny. Usually when he was at his most irritable. One coffee break, he started to complain about Tony Blair. He had written a letter a week or so ago to the P M complaining about government funding of a Turkish dam which would deprive Kurds of their homes. ‘Well – I got a letter today from 10 Downing street, you know? In fact, I’d completely forgotten that I’d written the letter, I opened it up and thought what the fuck’s this…well it began ‘Dear Harold,’ and ended ‘Yours ever, Tony!’ …I’ve never met the man!’ Sometimes, one could see how these episodes fed directly into Harold’s work. There is an exchange in Celebration, between the Maitresse d’ and her guests, where she talks about men she has known who were ‘very interested in sex’. Harold told us this came from a conversation he had had with Lady Richardson, who was a close friend of Vivien Leigh’s. What was Vivien like, Harold had asked her. ‘Oh – very interested in sex’, said Lady Richardson.

‘And that was it!’ said Harold. ‘I wanted to say…could you be…a bit…more specific!’ And he gave a rare blush. His openness was very winning. On the subject of children, which is also touched on in Celebration, Harold said, ‘I was an incredibly morbid, morose child. My parents never had another after they saw how I turned out.’ Then, as an afterthought, he added brightly – ‘I cheered up later, though.’ Harold’s stories frequently showed himself in a ridiculous light. For instance, the first performance of The Room. He began this story with the statement – ‘As you know, I have never been drunk.’ Everyone laughed. ‘But when The Room was first put on, in Bristol, and I was in Rep, they put it on for me on a Sunday evening, so that I could see it. And…it’s a very exciting thing, to see your own play put on. It had never happened to me before. And afterwards there was a party. And I remember, at some late stage, standing in the bathroom saying to the actor who played Riley, who was six foot two, “I…could take you…I could take you…any day”. [Here Harold made vague swiping movements.] And each time I said it, he said “Yes, yes” [and Harold mimed a pat on the head, given from a great height]. Finally I stumbled home through the streets of Bristol back to the digs, led by Henry Woolf, where my wife – Vivien – was waiting. Vivien opened the door. It was about 3 in the morning and she was wearing this black cape. And Henry said, “Here is your husband”. I mean…it was so Victorian! And the next day I had a hangover like you wouldn’t believe. And I had to go and do 10 Little Niggers in Brighton.’

Looking back at my diary at this stage, I thought the cast vaguely unfriendly. I realise now it was stress and nerves. Despite Pinter’s charm, everyone was frozen by the fear of displeasing him. Pinter himself, I think, sensed this, and the unique problem it threw up – a weird phenomenon of eagerly over-playing the notes he gave. Early on, he said, ‘This business of notes – I don’t want them to be taken literally and to extremes. I am not the Bible. Don’t be too dutiful on the pauses – they’re not biblical!’ When Henry Woolf asked, ‘Harold, do you mind if I….move around a bit, during my speech?’ Harold replied ironically – ‘I mind desperately…This is what’s called a rehearsal! You’re free to do what you like.’

And yet, somehow, the actors weren’t.

Actors love to talk about their characters. Not only does this help them understand why they say what they say: on the most basic level, it buys them time. There’s a limit to how many times you can run a scene productively. But Harold, famously, does not love to talk about his characters. So, at the start of rehearsals, the effect was of a strange acceleration, with none of the usual ‘brakes’ that would be implemented by actors – pauses for argument, discussion, questions. We just raced on, blocking the moves for scene after scene.

On the Monday morning of the second week, the cast seemed oddly silent and disgruntled. I soon found out why. They had been told to learn all their lines over the weekend – a huge amount for those, like Lia and Lindsay, who had big parts in both plays. There were grumbles that Harold had not given them enough to go on in terms of, yes, character. It was difficult to learn lines when one didn’t know what they meant. But again, no one actually dared say anything. However, Harold seemed to sense the cast’s unspoken resentment. Before we began rehearsals, he made a short speech, saying he found the way everyone was saying the lines ‘pretty persuasive’, so they must be on the right track in terms of character. He then retold the now notorious story of the actor who dared ask about his character only to get the answer ‘None of your fucking business.’ Harold paused. ‘And in a way…that’s…my answer.’ He paused again. ‘I mean…you find out what you’re doing by doing it, the…explanation…lies in doing it, saying the bloody lines.’

The issues that obsess a writer are not necessarily those that obsess an actor. The actors want to know why they do what they do because it gives them what Katy Mitchell terms ‘petrol in the tank’ – when the director has gone, if you understand the reasons for your ‘choices’ you can keep your performance alive by subtly ‘riffing’ like a jazz musician around them. If you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, then you can’t. For Harold, conversely, much more technical factors, of presentation and delivery, were vital to the playing of his play. Much later, when we were at the stage of dress rehearsals, after a particularly bad run, which Harold called ‘fitful,’ he once more returned to this favourite hobby horse – ‘clarity of delivery,’ and I finally saw what he meant. Probably born out of his experiences of rep, ‘delivery’ was just as important as questions of ‘character’ to his plays. ‘There has to be body in your delivery. Because this is a comedy you need to use your hard palate: you can’t be too airy in your delivery [which some of the women were]. You have to balance, in your delivery, character (I mean naturalism and so on) and the words. Of course the two are connected, but there is something elusive in this play – you need freedom and presentation allied. This is not a naturalistic piece of work. You need to feel the structure of the language – it should have real shape – which is not, ultimately, realistic. It’s like Americans doing The Lover. The more they worried about motivation, the more the language went down the drain.’

But at this early stage, in the second week, it was very hard for the actors to give Harold the ‘body of delivery’ he required, particularly since, in Celebration, the action cuts from table to table, giving no ‘warm-up’ time. The actors simply had to launch in at a manufactured high energy every time the action cut to them with a ‘lights up’ – which Harold indicated with a muscular snap of his fingers. And then, there was the problem of what to do in their ‘twilight’ moments, when the lights were up on the other table and they were still on stage, but not ‘active’. It was extremely hard to have a mimed conversation without starting to whisper, which Harold interrupted with a gentle – ‘Now kids. It is distracting.’ But if the actors didn’t talk, what did they do? Pinter turned to them generally, with genuine curiosity –  ‘Well – what are you doing in those moments?’

‘Me? I’m waiting, for you – to go like, “that”,’ Keith said, snapping his fingers. ‘That’s what I’m doing.’

In fact, Keith, out of all the actors, seemed to be the least ruffled by Pinter’s way of working. Often, he arrived hungover, and snored softly in the corner of the room as others ran their scenes. Once he came in with a strange bloodstained scratch down his cheek. We asked what had happened. ‘Someone said Beckett was better than Pinter. So I started on them.’ And as everyone ‘lurched around in the mud’, as Pinter put it, trying to remember their lines, directing them with a questioning look on their faces to the DSM, Keith would cock up his lines 40 times in a row without an atom of embarrassment. There was one line in particular Keith found seemingly impossible to remember in The Room – ‘So you’re the wife of the bloke you mentioned then.’ In the end, Harold said, ‘The day you get that line right, Keith, I’ll give you a chocolate pudding.’ After a rehearsal of Keith’s scene in The Room, full of approximations and mistakes, Harold singled out for praise Keith’s tone of hushed sourness in his ‘Come on’, to his wife as they make a sharp exit from Rose’s room – ‘That was just right, Keith,’ said Harold.

‘But the rest of it was shit!’ said Keith. ‘But those two words, in that order, were right.’

‘It helps that you’re leaving,’ said Lindsay.

Keith – and, strangely, the cockney Danny Dyer – in their resilience, and lack of Pinterian reverence, had an advantage with the text, and with Pinter. Harold liked a bit of cheek. And when Keith invented himself ‘business’, Harold usually approved whole-heartedly. One day, rehearsing Celebration, Harold suddenly leant forwards, peering at Keith intently.

‘Is that a toothpick?’ he asked. Keith nodded. ‘It’s great.’

Rehearsing the opening of Celebration, Keith repeatedly lit a fresh fag before the waiter’s first line which opens the play. In the end Harold asked what on earth he was doing.

‘A subtle joke – you know, the food arrives and I have to put it out.’

‘Bit early in the day to be subtle, isn’t it?’ said Harold.

‘Yeah,’ said Keith, ‘but I wanted a laugh before the first line of the play.’

By the time we hit the theatre, Pinter had endorsed the fag, even telling the waiter to give a pause after Keith lit his cigarette in the darkness before coming on – ‘I want the audience to be frightened of that glowing cigarette.’

Though the rehearsal process might have been unsatisfying for some of the actors, from the outside, it produced marvellous results. Harold’s ear was clear, precise; and his eye for physical detail, and what it betrayed psychologically, fascinating. The irony was, for all the ‘externality’ of the notes that Harold gave, they actually told you a lot about what made his characters tick inside.

When Rose, trapped in her rented room, goes over to look out of the window, Harold told Lindsay to stay sitting at the table longer than she wanted to – ‘Don’t get up straight from the table – something pulls you there.’ When the Sands invade Rose’s room, we should feel along with Rose how unfamiliar it is to have these new bodies in her space. Lindsay should bend down to put her bin back, and then, as she straightens up, Harold told her, ‘re-register the fact that there are now two strangers in your room’. Harold instructed Lia and Keith, in their turn, to be physically bolder in marking out their territory. ‘Look around, make the place your own. Keith, go and look at Bert’s comic. Believe me, whatever it is, it’ll be worth looking at!’ Keith revealed his own detailed reasoning. ‘Yeah. I go over to find out if the teapot’s still warm. I put my hand on it – yes, it is – and then on the way back, I notice the comic.’  ‘You were scrutinising that sink as if you were a plumber,’ Harold noted.

‘Yeah, well, that was my thinking,’ said Keith.

When Rose is alone with her dominant, silent husband Bert, Harold told Lindsay not to talk to him from the refuge of her rocking chair, but to stand at his elbow as he ate, talking, utterly ignored by him – because that way, ‘It’s much lonelier’. The blocking was all about Rose, dangerously, try to get a little more contact with Bert: without success. And Harold was marvellous at sharpening the sense of externals in this bleak little play – ‘Lindsay, when you say “Can you hear the wind”, could you actually hear it? And when Rose says “If they ever ask you Bert, I’m quite happy where I am”, you should be aware, Lindsay, that you’re standing in a freezing cold room with an unlit fire.’ Lindsay, like Keith, brought her own imagination to bear. ‘Do you think there’s an embargo – laid down by him – on lighting the fire before a certain time?’ asked Lindsay.

‘Yes,’ said Harold. ‘Mean bugger.’

‘Ah,’ said Lindsay. ‘So…as soon as he’s gone – it’s on!’

[Which Lindsay did, in performance.]

Harold also heightened Bert’s dominance through his physical life, requesting that Stephen make a noise eating, and clink his cutlery. He finessed every detail, right down to which points Stephen should imperviously turn the pages of his comic – ‘And don’t read it too fast.’ Harold shared with us the first inspiration for The Room: seeing two men, one standing up, endlessly talking and feeding and fussing round the other one, who was utterly silent and seated. Who were the two men? Quentin Crisp and a lorry driver.

Halfway through rehearsals, a fight director came to choreograph the moment when Bert discovers the blind Riley in his ‘room’ with his wife, tips him out of the chair, and kills him with one kick to the head. Given Harold’s fastidiousness when it came to physical life, and the fight director’s need to obey health and safety regulations, and mask the fakery of the moves, the negotiation between them was always going to be amusing.

Fight director: ‘Does it have to be a kick that kills him? Could he not take hold of his head and bash it, say?’

Harold: ‘No.’

The fight director was also sceptical about the action of tipping Riley out of the chair.

F D: ‘So, he wants to kill him, does he?’

Harold: ‘Yes.’

F D: ‘Well – the first thing that pops into your head is not to tip the chair over.’

Harold: ‘Yes, but he’s a sadist, this guy.’

F D: ‘Could he not get behind him, say, and garrotte him with the tea-towel, like this?’

Harold: ‘I know I said he was a sadist just now, but what you’re suggesting is too elaborate.’

As rehearsals progressed, despite Harold’s protestations about pronouncements on character, some did start to come from him. Usually when he was nudging the actors towards a certain way of saying a line or playing a scene. Of the irascible couple, the Sands, he said ‘Your arguments are one of the joys of life for you’. So the less discreet they were, the better, with Rose standing, observing, taken aback.

MRS SANDS: You could do with a bit more of that instead of all that tripe you get up to.

MR SANDS: You don’t mind some of that tripe!

MRS SANDS: You take after your uncle, that’s who you take after!

MR SANDS: And who do you take after?

MRS SANDS: I didn’t bring you into the world.

MR SANDS: You didn’t what?

MRS SANDS: I said, I didn’t bring you into the world.

MR SANDS: Well, who did then? That’s what I want to know. Who did? Who did bring me into the world?

Harold said to think of ‘tripe’ as a codeword for sex. ‘And when she says “I didn’t bring you into the world”, it irritates the shit out of you. And when you say, “Well, who did then?” you’re really saying, “Well what the fuck am I doing married to you?”’ Harold was very funny on the various forms of marital disharmony. On Russel and Suki, the bickering couple in Celebration, Stephen should say ‘Listen, she was just a secretary’ as if to say ‘I’ve already said all of this’. Why? Lia asked. ‘Because he’s had a bit on the side…which is always irritating, granted. I should imagine!’

Hitting the right ‘tone’ was very important to Harold. In Celebration, when the anniversary table talk about ballet, Harold revealed it was ironic. ‘Ballet is not the height of your lives. Make us feel your contempt for the poofs and ponces for whom it is.’ This led him to talk about the deadpan nature of their humour. The actors must remember that these characters ‘have no self-consciousness. If you laugh at your jokes, they [the audience] won’t. Some of what you say is almost poetic – “She wouldn’t give me the drippings off her nose” – but the important thing is not to say it with any consciousness of that.’ When the table have finally ‘stumbled over the precipice into pissendom’, the maitre d’ asks how the food is, and is given the answer:

PRUE: She wasn’t impressed with her food. It’s true. She said so. She thought it was dry as dust. She said – what did you say darling? – she’s my sister – she said she could cook better than that with one hand stuffed between her legs – she said – no, honestly – she said she could make a better sauce than the one on that plate if she pissed into it.

The maitre d’ must, Harold said, react as if all this is very interesting information. Even with a little enviousness – (‘One hand stuffed between her legs? Really…’) Similarly, when Russell tells Suki she is ‘a prick’ and she replies ‘Good gracious, am I really?’ Suki must, Harold said, ‘be filled with the growing excitement of this new world – she is a prick.’

Pressed, once again, by the actors as to the ‘twilight moments’ in the restaurant, more character revelations followed. Harold said of the party who refer to themselves as ‘strategy consultants’, ‘They spend a lot of their time talking about money. How much things cost, the cost of hotels, restaurants. When they tip the waiter, maitre and maitresse d’ 50-pound notes at the end of the play, the notes are’, (darkly), ‘very important – not in terms of money, but as symbolic of the great deal you have going together. You are selfish people and complicit with each other. They are beating the system and have a glee in this.’ Harold revealed he had once sat next to a business man at a dinner, who turned to him and said,

‘Do you pay tax?’

‘Yes,’ said Harold.

‘You don’t need to. We should have lunch some time. You don’t need to pay tax, you know.’

Slowly, with the help of these unexpected character tips, the actors started to tune into their performances. It was particularly interesting to see Harold’s brand of taste and tact at work on those who had started way off from where he wanted them. George, who played the blind ‘negro’ Riley sent by Rose’s mysterious father, had a weakness to play the ‘mystical’ element of his character. Early on, Harold said gently, ‘Look – you’re not a messenger from God – you’re a messenger from Dad! …There is a mystical element to Riley’s arrival. But that’s not what we can play.’ As the rehearsals went on, Harold became tougher. George had a tendency to smile beatifically through sections of his text, which, as Harold pointed out, was ‘extremely misleading. You veer towards ecstasy. I want you to come back from that’. Harold then tangled himself up with cricketing metaphors. Riley knows ‘this is going to be a tough wicket. But you’re acting as if it’s batting paradise. Whereas you don’t know how the balls are going to break. If you see what I mean’. Harold summed up, so there could be no misunderstanding: ‘Whatever was going on, you tumbled into sentimentality. That can’t happen. You must possess authority.’ Slowly, George found his performance.

Harold was even tougher with his old friend Henry Woolf. Henry, from giving a fantastic performance at the read-through, inevitably started to go over the top in rehearsals. ‘You can afford to simplify the whole thing. Do not let it weigh you down, where you have come from. You should be, essentially, babbling. Too much thought is dangerous. You’re telling too many bloody tales. I know there are 24 other stories behind what you’re saying, but you don’t have to tell every one of them! And…I don’t know why you’re doing it…but you keep looking out…you dart me these little looks…is it because you think I’m going to make a note?’

HW: ‘No Harold, it’s years of alienation, Brecht.’

HP: ‘Yes well. Scrub that.’

Harold’s ear was alert to every nuance of delivery, and he was more brutal with Henry than anyone else – probably because they had known each other so long. After one run, he noted suspiciously, ‘There was something artificial, manufactured, manipulated, in the way you said “I’ve seen him bowl down the road, oh yes”’ (referring to ‘Bert’ in his car). ‘Why?’

Henry, who gave as good as he got, said boldly, ‘Yes. It was because I felt a sudden rush of joy, Harold.’

‘You’ve got to guard against these…temptations,’ growled Harold.

It worked – Henry pulled his performance back, and Harold noted it approvingly – ‘Yes. Now you’re punctilious…like a little chemist I once knew.’

And yet, Harold could be highly sensitive, when the actor was vulnerable. Danny Dyer was the youngest member of the cast, and although he had acted at the Almeida once before, in Certain Young Men, he was not as experienced as the rest. He had the difficult task of delivering the huge lists of names of the people his grandfather knew – none of whom Danny himself had ever heard of. Seeing that Danny was struggling, Harold diplomatically used praise, stressing that the waiter has ‘the most imagination out of any of the characters…he completely hypnotises them when talking’. Keith, listening to this sceptically, interjected ‘Yes, but the guy’s a fucking moron, isn’t he?’ Harold ignored this, continuing with his encouragement: ‘And what I particularly liked, Danny, was the tone you took on when you started to talk about the “old deep south conglomerate”. You became conspiratorial.’

‘You’ve lost me there, mate,’ Danny said quickly.

It was extremely hard for Danny to remember his lists – for some reason, W B Yeats often eluded him. After a long pause while he struggled, the ASM finally gave him the line – ‘W B Yeats’.

‘Yeah,’ said Danny. ‘W B Yeats – cunt.’

Harold’s major note for Danny was that he should relish each of the names – they should not just be a list. Each one should have colour. For instance, the first in the list – Ezra Pound – ‘Pick it out a bit more – it’s a great name.’

‘Yeah,’ said Danny. ‘Was that a geezer or a bird?’

HP: ‘A man.’

Danny: ‘Yeah – cos it sounds like a bird, dunnit – Ezra.’

HP: ‘You ever met a bird called Ezra?’

Harold also thought Danny should make more of Carson McCullers. He said mysteriously, ‘I mean…she wasn’t called Carson Mc Cullers for nothing!…although…I seem to remember…she was a dwarf lesbian. A midget. Wasn’t she, Henry?’

‘From the deep South,’ said Henry Woolf, as if this modified the situation somewhat.

‘You’ve fucked me now, mate,’ said Danny. ‘I’ll be pissing myself.’

Even we waitresses got our moment of love. Kathy and I were on right at the start of Celebration – the play opens with the anniversary table being served their food. It was our job to come on with the plates behind the waiter, Danny. Then, after the action had switched to the other table, we appeared again at the top of the next scene, to clear the plates. The first time we did it, Harold praised us, saying ‘it went like fucking clockwork’. Then, when we hadn’t been on for a while, but were waiting at the back for our moment, Harold turned round and said ‘I miss you. What can we do about it?’

As the time neared for the plays to move into the theatre, the question of the food came up. Osso Bucco is one of the dishes referred to in the text. Harold said that the stage management should get it from his local Italian, Orsino’s. It turned out they refused to offer any reduction. £15 a go – which would amount to £105 pounds a week! Harold was shocked. ‘It’s my local. Did you say what it was for?’

Yes, said the ASM.

‘Well…you obviously didn’t speak to the right person.’

‘I spoke to the manager.’

‘There are several managers,’ Harold said darkly.

Keith, on hearing all this, burst out, ‘Listen, Harold – I could make it, spread the £15 through the company, mean we’d all get a pound more each!’

I don’t know what arrangement they did come to with Orsino’s. But the Osso Bucco that we got looked very authentic. Danny took one look at it and said, ‘Looks like something an Alsatian threw up.’

As we reached the final lap of rehearsals, Harold gave a final few brilliant notes – to bring back the freshness that the actors had lost. There were a couple of places, he said, where they were starting to sound like they all knew what they were going to say. When Bert has his long monologues, at the end of The Room, they mustn’t get ‘too rounded’ – ‘he doesn’t know at any one point whether he has finished or not.’

There had been no explosions in rehearsals, and although the actors might have been sitting on a lot of repressed tension and fear, generally the feeling was of a harmonious ride. Harold had been extremely affectionate to Kathy and me, and I had even had the joy of a couple of moments of being able to contribute materially to rehearsals. For instance, at the end of The Room, when Riley calls Rose by another name, ‘Sal,’ Rose finally breaks down, saying ‘Not Sal’. When Lindsay did this, in one of the last runs, something extraordinary happened on the line. Harold said to Lindsay, ‘I don’t know what it is that you did, but it worked, so do it again if you can’. I had noticed the same moment, and thought that Lindsay had sounded suddenly younger, almost childlike, as she said ‘Not Sal’ – that is, she had gone back to the childhood self that had that name. After rehearsals I went up to Harold and told him. ‘You’re absolutely right,’ he said, and passed the note on to Lindsay.

I was very pleased, but unfortunately, this was probably a contributing factor to the fatal error I then made with Harold. We had all been invited to drinks, to meet the other company doing Richard II, at the Gainsborough Studios. It was the Friday of the last week of rehearsals. Chatting away with Harold and a couple of others, I remarked how accurate a note Harold had given was. Thank you, said Harold. But, I foolishly added, the actor in question still wasn’t doing it. At that point, Ralph Fiennes walked past and left the party – without, I think, having first introduced himself to Harold. And Harold’s mood suddenly flipped. Smiling coldly, he turned to me and said, ‘Darling – you must never give me notes.’ Everyone in the circle went quiet. ‘Oh dear,’ said Harold, looking around. ‘I seem to have cast a froideur.’

It’s probably no coincidence this comparatively tiny example of the Harold dangerousness happened just before we were due to move into the theatre. However relaxed Harold seemed, there was something about moving from the womb of the rehearsal room to putting on the show in front of the public that raised the stakes. But I felt completely unable to mend the awkwardness that I felt I’d caused, and bitterly embarrassed by my presumption. I don’t think Harold knew what to do either, and so he ignored not only me, but Kathy as well, all through tech, dress and previews. As a result I couldn’t fully enjoy the final excitement of hearing, seeing, and being in the show in front of an audience for the first time. I felt I had ruined something that had been a fantastic opportunity and I didn’t know how to put it right.

Harold’s tenseness and irritability continued to resurface as press night approached, although not directed at me. Again, noise was an issue. Harold wanted The Room to open with the noise of the running tap at the sink. After the first preview, he complained to the production manager, ‘I don’t know quite what’s going on, Rupert…but the lights come down, and then…this usherette starts slamming the doors shut, in a tremendous rush, making a hell of a fucking racket, you know in a tremendous panic, stumbling over bags and God knows what…this usherette…who I’m sure is a charming woman in herself…is making a hell of a fucking racket. I mean…it’s ridiculously amateur. We’re not the town hall in Woking on Trent, for God’s sake. That’s why I couldn’t hear the water at the beginning.’

And there was also the problem, now, of people – the public who came to see the play. Lindsay coined a phrase for the nonsense people came up with after having seen the show – ‘bar bollocks.’ Danny foolishly said to Harold, ‘Yeah, one old geezer came up to me and said [posh accent] ‘I didn’t quite understand the point of you. What was the point of you?’ Harold cut him off, smiling tensely –

‘I’d really rather…not know what they said.’

On press night, after a very good show, we all gathered for prosecco in the green room. Harold said ‘Where are my girls?’ and kissed Lindsay and Lia. Then, he kissed Kathy, and said ‘Where’s Nina?’ and kissed me. At the end of the night I thanked Harold for everything – it had been fascinating so far and I was sure it would continue so. ‘Everything?’ he said.

‘Everything’, I said, and he smiled and kissed me again on the cheek.


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