Searching for Harold Pinter in Athens

HAROLD Pinter was in town this weekend. A select group of Athenians – members of the press, academics, actors, socialites and fans – had the opportunity to meet the master of puzzles up close and personal hoping possibly to decipher the puzzle of the man himself. As Pinter fans we often search for clues about the man in his body of work, but how often do we get a chance to meet the mysterious pen behind the text? The Athens News spent the weekend in search of Harold Pinter.

Accepting an invitation by the culture ministry to attend performances of two of his plays, Ashes to Ashes and No Man’s Land, as presented by the Nea Skini Theatre and the Aplo Theatro respectively, the now 70-year-old playwright (he celebrated his birthday on October 10) arrived in Athens at approximately three o’clock on Friday accompanied by his wife of 20 years, esteemed historian and author of the bestselling Mary Queen of Scots, Lady Antonia Fraser (the pair’s affair back in the Seventies was described as “scandalous” by tabloids), and a BBC crew currently working on a two-hour special dedicated to the playwright.

The couple later checked into the prestigious Grande Bretagne Hotel and enjoyed a late lunch at the exquisite Dionysos restaurant boasting a idyllic view of the Acropolis, with hosts, Antonis Antypas (director of No Man’s Land and known both as actor and director having worked with Karolos Koun), and Eleni Karaindrou (composer known for scoring Theo Angelopoulos’ films).

Antypas told Greek daily Ta Nea that “they are a very warm couple. They create familiarity. I feel honoured that [Pinter] considers me a friend. He discusses everything – theatre, politics etc…”. Later that night they were guided through the intimate streets of Plaka where they dined at the Taverna Tou Psarra. Saturday saw the pair arrive at the Nea Skini Theatre on Cycladon St in Kypseli at around 9.30pm, for the production of Ashes to Ashes, where a jittery crowd – Yiorgos Patsas, Roula Pateraki, Yiorgos Veltsos, Stratos Tzortzoglou and many others – gathered to meet the British playwright.

This is Pinter’s 1996 play that explores with disturbing accuracy a marriage in crisis between Rebecca (played by Reni Pittaki, the only Greek actor to have performed in five Pinter plays, something that certainly shows in her stage presence. She is the essence of Pinteresque.) and husband Devlin (Lefteris Voyatzis). Here Pinter’s fascination with isolation and separateness is explored via a dysfunctional relationship, in which the husband prods – almost like a psychiatrist does to this patient – his wife to reveal the facts of an earlier abusive relationship – Pinter explores the link between sexual and political fascism.

After the lights dimmed, the pair – sunken in lounge chairs – appear on a revolving stage. They execute the dialogue complete with the typical Pinter silences, the sudden changes of conversation, the talking as if through the other and not with the other. The characters are both here and yet not here, at once focused on each other and in a world of their own characterised by an almost hypnotic stance where it seems they are experiencing a side show of their very own.

Following the production, director Voyatzis invited the playwright himself (who had sat through the performance clearly attentive and when audience members coughed and settled or fidgeted, he would turn his head sternly in their direction) to the stage to thank him, saying in a somewhat self-conscious state, “I’m not very good at this… Harold Pinter is who he is, not much else is needed.”

Pinter took the stage, was offered a fresh bouquet of flowers and succinctly addressed the crowd: “I would like to thank these two actors for their performance of my play, I was very moved by it. It was a very beautiful production, I can’t say anymore than that.” With that, he stepped off the stage only to be met by his wife – described by Pittaki as “dynamic, intelligent, with a great persona – a truly aristocratic lady”. The crowd followed the pair to the bar where they waited anxiously in line to grab at their opportunity to shake hands and congratulate the most important living British playwright. On Saturday night, however, Pinter was not interested in talking politics (though later at a more relaxed gathering over dinner he was much more candid). One audience member asked, “What do you think of Kostunica?” He replied “What do you think?” and later “I’m not interested in having this conversation.” He was very enthusiastic when a young thespian approached him to tell him that she’d directed The Caretaker and to give him a souvenir programme of her production.

Over a few glasses of wine, he was asked to elaborate on his thoughts on Ashes to Ashes (it was the first production of his plays that he had seen in Greece even though local troupes have been performing his work from the early Sixties, thanks to the innovative Karolos Koun, who initially imported Pinter). “I think they are wonderful actors,” he said of Pittaki and Voyatzis and added that the production was an intelligent one and the actors displayed much sensitivity in their roles.”

Asked how he was able to follow the play in Greek – a language he doesn’t know – he replied: “Well, easily, I know the play very well!” The Athens News asked about translation. Can a play can be rendered accurately at an international level or can a true presentation of the work stand only in the original. He smiled and explained that “it certainly works in different languages, each time I see my plays in different languages, the laughs are always in the same place”. Is he familiar with contemporary Greek theatre? “No, not really.” Could he make a comment on contemporary theatre trends? “I’m not a theorist,” he replied. Does he feel that the image has taken over the text? “Everyone says that, but that is not the case, text will always be central to theatre,” and with that he raised his glass of wine, “Here’s to text.” Indeed, Pinter has been hailed as “bringing poetry back to the theatre”.

“Another question I’d like to ask you Mr Pinter,” I hesitated, “Another question!” he exclaimed and we laughed, “Look, I don’t know if I can answer it.” “Well, I’ll just ask it and we’ll see… I’d like to ask you a question that Nikos Kazantzakis, on his travels, would ask those of highly intellectual and spiritual calibre. ‘What do you think is the duty that men of culture and letters have towards society?’” He took a step toward me to answer, “I don’t think I have a duty to society as a writer, but rather as a man. And I don’t mean, I have a duty to society as it is, but rather as it should be. As a writer, I have a duty to write well, and accurately.” I sought clarification, “Accurately?” “By that I mean precisely,” he offered, “I mean to accurately present the truth of the characters and not something false.”

This is interesting considering that his friends use words like “exactness” and “precision” to describe him. But on the other hand, Pinter according to his friends, (as Kate Kellaway writes in The Observer on Sunday, 24 September, 2000) “claims not to know how he writes. While there are authors who claim to have been taken over by their characters in a way that seems whimsical, in Pinter’s case, it would appear to be true… ‘You always wonder,’ says Christopher Hampton, ‘whether Harold is a miraculous vessel through which something pours.’”

Later Saturday, Pinter dined in the Thission neighbourhood with a small group including Voyatzis who described him as an “incredibly warm person, sincere, with a great sense of humour, even black humour, who once he trusts you opens himself up to you”. On Sunday, Pinter arrived at Kallithea’s Aplo Theatro to take his seat for the production of No Man’s Land – his 1975 comedy of menace that exudes a nauseating uneasiness where communication breaks down and one is afflicted by memories of the past that linger like a haunting and yet at times humorous nightmare. Brilliant in his role of Spooner, Ilias Logothetis later spoke to the Athens News about performing for the playwright himself. Was he extra nervous? “No, I have known Pinter for years, he is a friend of mine, I’ve performed in a number of his plays. Of course, it’s quite significant to have him here tonight, not just for us on stage but for everyone, especially on an emotional level.” Asked if he was concerned whether the playwright would like his performance, “I have been working for too many years to be concerned about whether my performance is liked or not.”

Well, not that he needed to worry anyway, Pinter later congratulated director and cast for the “magnificent production of my play” and later commented positively on the actors’ balanced performance and movement. Director Antypas also offered a comment to the Athens News, “It’s very important for us to have Pinter here in the audience, quite an honour, and of course it’s natural to feel somewhat nervous, not about the interpretation of the play itself, the play is complete and I am confident with it, but rather a slight sense of nerves about something going wrong etc.” When Pinter comments on his plays, he doesn’t just comment as a playwright, after all he’s taken the stage himself to perform as well as placed himself in the director’s chair. Most recently Pinter has been busy travelling to different countries either to see his plays performed or to direct them himself. “I directed Ashes to Ashes,” he told daily Eleftherotypia, “in Italy and France. In Palermo, though I didn’t know any Italian, the actors spoke English and I also used an interpreter.” The Observer says that Pinter “emerges as a director who makes life fun for actors and an actor who is willing”. Pinter departed for London yesterday. We are left with more pieces of the puzzle, no nearer to putting them all together.

Visit the Harold Pinter website for more at

Kathryn Koromilas for the Athens News.

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