Q&A with Tom Edden on Pinter Three: ‘to really travel through Pinter’s landscape is often to be lost, out in the cold with no map or sign of shelter.’

Anthony Walker-Cook exchanged questions with Tom Edden, who is currently performing in Pinter Three as part of the Pinter at the Pinter season. Subjects touched upon include  Pinter’s place in the canon and Tom’s personal favourite Pinter play.

AWC: What was your first encounter with Pinter’s drama?
TD: Like most people, ‘The Caretaker’ was probably my first awareness of Pinter’s voice. Early on in my career I played the pivotal role of the Italian waiter in ‘Betrayal’ in Rupert Goold’s production in about 2002.

Do you have a favourite Pinter play?
Without being an expert on all of his plays I would stick with ‘The Caretaker’, having seen memorable productions with Michael Gambon and Timothy Spall in the title role. Last time I saw it I was struck by how the play resonates around sibling rivalry; the brothers wordlessly agree to sacrifice the outsider to prevent their relationship descending into a Cane and Able style conflict.

What can you say of your roles in Pinter 3?

One can only point to the broadest of similarities between them, as the pieces: ‘Girls’, ‘Night’, ‘That’s Your Trouble’ and ‘Trouble In The Works’ do differ greatly in tone. However they all seem to have a neurotic relationship with the past / truth / facts that they are all using language to navigate. All require a listener to help them steer through their loneliness or crisis.

Minimalism, absurdism, chaos, violence and nostalgia are just some of the themes in Pinter’s work – which of these do you find most appealing as an actor and why?
I think the themes you describe are all potential surface or deep themes that are for the audience to grapple with, but as an actor you would get into hot water if you tried to, as it were, ‘play chaos’ or ‘play absurdism’. They are undoubtably some of the characteristics of Pinter’s style, but ironically you will serve those themes by not carrying them onstage too deliberately – its my job as an actor to been forensically employed in the specifics of what my character is after in the scene, why and how they are going to get it. As it were, we have to play the ‘notes’ he has written and let the listener decide which themes speak to them.

In the song ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ from Company, the character Joanne vehemently talks of how the titular women go to see a Pinter play… what is the most alluring thing about Pinter’s work?
The allure may well be different to what an audience is actually left with at the end of the night. Part of his attraction I’d say is that he always assumes the intelligence of the audience, he is dead funny but he has teeth. An audience member might feel they can stay safe and enjoy regarding the work as a complex and fascinating object, but for the audience member to really travel through Pinter’s landscape is often to be lost, out in the cold with no map or sign of shelter.

‘Pinter is clearly turned on by Beckett’s barren world of ambiguity and no answers.’ Tom Edden in Pinter Three at the Pinter Theatre.

Writing on surrealism and the theatre, Antonin Artaud suggested, “The Theatre of Cruelty will choose themes and subjects corresponding to the agitation and unrest of our times.” Is Pinter’s work a Theatre of Cruelty and what agitations of our contemporary times does he tap in to?
I’m not sure I’d categorise Pinter’s theatre as purely a theatre of cruelty, as far as I understand the definition: he has far too much subtly and ambiguity for that. Although much of the work featured in Pinter 1 was gruelling and angry. It seems when he is his most politically engaged his drama can certainly enter the ‘cruel’ world. Pinter was fiercely engaged in highlighting political injustices, and particularly addressed what he saw as the false and numbing ‘truths’ we have been fed our leaders.

How does Pinter’s work compare with that of, say, Shakespeare or Ibsen?
In the evolution of great writers, Pinter compares to them in so far as he belongs in that lineage; of those that changed the paradigm and moved our theatrical technology forward. To learn as an actor, Pinter’s lines can often have a musical shape to them which is obviously the case with Shakespeare. I’d say the playwright that is a more obvious ancestor and inspiration to Pinter is Beckett. Pinter is clearly turned on by Beckett’s barren world of ambiguity and no answers.

Could you comment on the other actors you are working with in the show?
It is a great thrill and honour to share the stage with my esteemed cast members. The joy is that their talents and special skills are so diverse. Keith Allen is a proper Pinter actor and was born to speak his words. Tamsin Greig is a beautiful performer and draws out a depth of poetry that I never tire of. I love performing with Meera Syal, she has a powerful open quality and I love the tenderness she brings to our scene together. And Lee Evans; well Lee is a genius!

If you had to summarise the plays you are in in one word, what would it be?
Unsettled.

If Pinter is trying to pose one question across the plays of Pinter 3, what is it? And what is the answer?
Without wriggling out of that completely I’d say that is different for every audience member, and to try and crystallise Pinter’s highly complex and elusive meaning would be a fool’s errand. I’m not even sure Pinter would want us to get to the bottom of these pieces – lets put it this way, if Pinter 3 was a piece of music, I think it would be Charles Ives’ ‘Unanswered Question’.

What was the best thing you saw in the past year on the stage?
I think its an exciting time as there are so many strong pieces of theatre around right now. I would say the prize for my last year goes to ‘The Inheritance’, no contest. The emotional electricity in the theatre, particularly at the end of Part One, was unrepeatable and is an experience I have urged all my friends to seek out.

Is there anything you wish you had seen ever? (The ‘who would you invite from history to a dinner party’ version for theatre)?
Of course! The list is too long, but I often wish I had seen certain great actors on stage, for example Laurence Olivier in ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’, or John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson in ‘No Man’s Land’. At the Pinter Theatre, among the posters of past productions is one for ‘No Man’s Land’ starring Paul Eddington and Harold pinter himself – that would’ve been something! Working with Lee Evans however does make me wish I’d seen him and Nathan Lane in ‘The Producers’ which regrettably I missed.

What can audiences learn from Pinter and why should they come to Pinter 3?
What they can learn is anyone’s guess. The thrill of performing his words is that you should never think you’ve got them figured out, or that you know exactly what he ‘means’. Audiences should come because there is great mental and emotional red meat to be chewed on, he takes you on a journey into the deepest and most guarded parts of our inner lives, offers no answers or hope, only that we all share the strange need to navigate through our own lives and relationships and his drama is a forum for those questions.

You can see Tom in Pinter Three at the Pinter Theatre until the 8th December, 2019. Our thanks to Tom for taking the time to answer our questions and to Martin Shippen PR for organising. 

Production and feature photograph from Marc Brenner.


Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL and is the Theatre editor for London Student. His interests include theatre adaptation, early modern drama, classical myths made modern and all things eighteenth century. For more information please contact: anthony.walker-cook.17@ucl.ac.uk

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