Director Karel Reisz Sifts Through Pinter's Ashes

Director Karel Reisz Sifts Through Pinter's Ashes Harold Pinter's Ashes to Ashes, which opened Feb. 7 at the Gramercy Theatre, runs 45 minutes -- or about $1.07 per minute if you pay $48 for a full-price ticket. The Roundabout Theatre Company, which is presenting this British import in Manhattan, has been adding value to the presentation by holding discussion panels immediately after its performances. Following one recent Saturday matinee preview, the panel host, a Roundabout dramaturg, was joined onstage by the show's two performers, Lindsay Duncan and David Strathairn, and its director, Karel Reisz.
Lindsay Duncan and David Strathairn in Ashes to Ashes; director Karel Reisz.
Lindsay Duncan and David Strathairn in Ashes to Ashes; director Karel Reisz. (Photo by Photo by Joan Marcus)

Harold Pinter's Ashes to Ashes, which opened Feb. 7 at the Gramercy Theatre, runs 45 minutes -- or about $1.07 per minute if you pay $48 for a full-price ticket. The Roundabout Theatre Company, which is presenting this British import in Manhattan, has been adding value to the presentation by holding discussion panels immediately after its performances. Following one recent Saturday matinee preview, the panel host, a Roundabout dramaturg, was joined onstage by the show's two performers, Lindsay Duncan and David Strathairn, and its director, Karel Reisz.

Comfortably clad in a black windbreaker and blue slacks, Reisz fielded questions from an audience baffled by the strange, elusive piece, perplexingly synopsized elsewhere as exploring "the apparent link between sexual and political fascism and the way one echoes, and even contradicts, the other." No, he said, the characters, a married couple parrying and thrusting about the wife's obsession with a brutalizing lover, are not meant to represent a psychoanalyst and his patient. "They're identified as a husband and wife in a university town outside London, and that's precisely who they are," he said, firmly, but gently. Later, when asked about any hidden meanings in the show's title, he politely chided the questioner: "It's the title of a song they sing, and not to be interpreted as anything more than a title for the piece. You're getting too specific."

Specifics are what Reisz used to specialize in, as the acclaimed director of films including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Morgan!, Isadora, Who'll Stop the Rain, and Sweet Dreams -- adapted from plays, books, or biographies, and presented naturalistically (or, in the case of Morgan!, as realistically as could be in handling David Warner donning a gorilla suit to go ape over Vanessa Redgrave). Reisz, whose family departed their native Czechoslovakia for England in 1939, was a founding member of Britain's Free Cinema Group, which David Thomson describes in his Biographical Dictionary of Film entry on the director as "showing and celebrating everyday life... For a few years, it became a proof of social and political seriousness."

Now, at age 72, Reisz is directing Pinter and Beckett, among others, for the stage -- still political, still serious, but at a distinct distance from everyday life. "It would have been no problem to build a set with doors for this production, but that's not essential," he says. "Graphically, you need enough of a set to suggest a well-ordered, middle-class life, which gradually disappears in the last few minutes as she tries to come to terms with the violence within her -- within all of us. That is what you need to see.

"People do like to put things in a shoebox," says Reisz of his grilling at the Gramercy, a few days after the matinee performance. "The characters, Devlin and Rebecca, play games, make jokes, and are habituated to each other's vocal rhythms. He tries to rescue her from this strange, haunted state she's in, and in the end tries a moment of violence to reimpose reality: How could they be a psychoanalyst and his patient? I've found, too, that audiences often judge them by who 'won' or 'lost' their 'fight' -- but perhaps that's a more American way of looking at things." It should be noted that the director, who has a dry wit, is not belittling curiosity about the piece; though he does not always participate in the post-show panels, he is delighted that most patrons remain in their seats to parse Pinter.

The two have been friends since the early Seventies, playing cards and developing screenplays. They drew an ace with their much-acclaimed adaptation of The French Lieutenant's Woman, with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons as one of the riveting star duos characteristic of Reisz's films. Reisz, who has directed Pinter's Moonlight and A Kind of Alaska for the stage, was asked by the playwright to shepherd Ashes to Ashes to New York; Pinter himself directed its London run in 1997, also starring Duncan. The play precedes a revival of The Hothouse, a more farcical work, at Manhattan's Atlantic Theatre Company later this month. "Harold is very much in the canon. However, in the early Nineties, he started writing political plays and audiences did not want to hear the bad news. But there is now a real upswell of interest in his work."

The bad news in Ashes to Ashes is vividly conveyed by the performers. Strathairn is particularly capable in charged moments, like the one where he places his hands around Duncan's neck in a kind of menacing caress, and Duncan is blood-freezingly effective at enacting the "Pinter pause" after words like "the knuckles," describing sex play with her lover. Reisz has a natural affinity for performers, particularly couples at odds: Albert Finney and Rachel Roberts in "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," Nick Nolte and Tuesday Weld in "Who'll Stop the Rain," and the marvelous pairing of Jessica Lange and Ed Harris in "Sweet Dreams," which inserts bittersweet notes of real life into what could have been a humdrum biopic about country singer Patsy Cline.

"When I was a student, I was the editor of Sequence, an avant-garde film magazine," he begins. "When filmmaker Robert Flaherty died, I rang John Huston, who was making The African Queen in England, and asked him to write an obituary for us. He knew Flaherty, and he knew the magazine, and he asked me to come over to the studio to have lunch at noon. In a corner of the set were Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, rehearsing. An hour passed, then another, as they rehearsed, and then it was four o'clock. I said to Huston, as mildly as possible, 'Shouldn't you be working?' And he replied, 'They'll let me know when they're ready.' It's an understatement to say it's all in the casting, but the luck of the draw helps," he laughs.

Reisz's last film to date is Everybody Wins, written by Arthur Miller from his one-act play Some Kind of Love Story, with Nolte (a favorite of the director's) as a detective enmeshed in the identity crisis of Debra Winger, in a beguilingly daft turn. Its failure in 1990 may have been discouraging, but Reisz says other reasons compelled him to leave the cinema. "Old age and senility, really," he says with a chuckle. "Mainly, there comes a point when you don't have anything to say to the 15-to-25 year-olds who are the basic moviegoing audience. I've always loved theatre, and about five years ago I started directing shows. And I'm having a ball.

"The thing about the theatre is that you take your cue from the author, which is not the case with the movies," he continues. "And the theatre is happening now, as you experience it -- if it goes dead, it's not happening at all. Of course, the difficulty for a theatre actor or director is that if there's just one person coughing loudly in the audience, it's very troublesome, particularly in a piece like this, which has no swordfights or anything and is extremely still." Reisz plans to stage Beckett's Happy Days in London this summer, and, once rights issues are resolved, revive an unnamed "modern classic" as a dream project.

Sweeping up Ashes in New York has left him little time to see theatre, but Reisz plans to take in Side Man, which should appeal to a grown-up angry young man, and A Majority of One -- less perhaps for the vehicle but for its driver, long-time family friend Phyllis Newman. Another current revival, Night Must Fall, summons an imp from his cinematic past, a version he directed in 1964 with Albert Finney. "Is a new one really happening? Oh, really," he exclaims, in evident surprise. "Well...Mona Washbourne was wonderful in ours, but it's very, very, very sick -- just incredibly neurotic." Which, who knows, may be the reaction his daughter and her husband, both psychoanalysts living in Ann Arbor, MI, may have to Ashes to Ashes when they see it in this engagement. "I'm curious as to how it will stir them," he says, slightly raising an eyebrow.

Reisz spent about 35 years as a film director, the dominant medium of the 20th century. He has few worries for the theatre, his avocation today, as the century turns. "What this play tries to show is the awful glamour of these horrible impulses toward violence -- the most terrifying aspect of torture in our world is that there are so many people willing to engage in it. With a play like this, and with theatre, there is a unique thrill you get from the actors, working with the writer's words -- the connections they make can be unexpected, paradoxical, and disturbing." Inserting his own Pinter pause, he concludes, "That's all good."

--Bob Cashill