Through Different Worlds: Alan Cox on Acting In Pinter
Across his career, actor Alan Cox has performed plays from different stages of playwright Harold Pinter’s canon. Most recently, he played Aston in a production of Pinter’s first major success, The Caretaker, opposite Jonathan Pryce. Now he takes on a later play, Betrayal. He spoke with dramaturg Charles Haugland about the evolution of his experience with Pinter.
Charles Haugland: When did you first act in Pinter’s work?
Alan Cox: In the early ‘90s, I acted in a production of The Dumb Waiter above a pub in Brixton. We didn’t have a director, so another friend who was an actor came in to watch us. He said, “Pinter characters are like goldfish with three second memories. They don’t necessarily retain great knowledge of the things that have passed.” The actor does not have too much slavery in Pinter to subtext or pre-life. There’s a life underneath the line, but there isn’t an excess of exposition about where the characters have been before the play or where they come from. They have a vivid life just by virtue of being onstage.
CH: That seems particularly true in The Dumb Waiter.
AC: Yes. Pinter knows that audiences love playing detective, and so he doesn’t spoon-feed you everything you need to know at the very beginning. The fascinating thing for me about doing The Caretaker was that Aston is monosyllabic — seemingly slow and odd. In the second half, it is revealed that he received electroconvulsive therapy and that he was slightly damaged. Pinter saves that revelation until about two-thirds of the way through the play. It suddenly changes the dynamic of what you’ve been watching to this point, which has been a series of eccentrics displaying varying degrees of menace. You realize that there’s a kind of profound social injustice in the center of it.
CH: What do you think of the evolution of Pinter’s work over the course of his career?
AC: There’s a sense that those early plays come out of his own experience as a struggling, itinerant actor. Pinter got a scholarship to Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but he dropped out and was a jobbing actor. Those early plays have a sense of living in theatrical digs, all these rundown properties: The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, Lenny and Max’s place in The Homecoming. The backgrounds of the characters are poor or working class.
But it seemed to me that Pinter was a social climber who liked the good life. After the failure of The Birthday Party and the success of The Caretaker, he became the toast of the town and a successful West End playwright. In Betrayal, the characters are from a higher social class: Oxford and Cambridge educated. Pinter is coming from outside this world and slightly satirizing it.
CH: You mentioned a de-emphasis on pre-life for characters in Pinter. In Betrayal, its unique structure sends us directly into the their past. How is it different as an actor when the story isn’t in linear order?
AC: The first reading we did as a company with Maria [Aitken, the director], we read the play sequentially. It was disorienting because each of us as an actor were familiar with the play as he wrote it. But the oldest forms of storytelling start at the present and go backwards. If I tell you a story and say “Once upon a time,” I start with where we are and I take us back to the beginning of the series of events.
The structure of this play is a different form of inviting the audience to be detective. We see how these betrayals came to a conclusion, and then we go back to see how they got there. It constantly invites a moral re-evaluation because you aren’t looking at the play in a traditional chronology. Of course, it doesn’t go strictly backwards; it folds back and forth in time. It’s very poetic in that respect: you don’t remember a whole poem, you remember fragments from it.
CH: Are there Pinter roles you hope to play someday?
AC: With Pinter’s plays, I’m not interested in playing the characters so much as I am in playing the material. The plays are the thing. I have done a lot of Chekhov, Wilde, Shaw, and Ibsen, and I remember saying to someone last year that maybe I didn’t have the equipment to do Pinter, and it seems like that was throwing down the gauntlet. So this year I’m saying that I haven’t got what it takes to be a Hollywood film star.