The Winterling / The Cut / Embers
Various venues

February / March, 2006

One of the occasional dubious pleasures of being a critic is that of having one’s cake and eating it.  Arguably, one instance of this is the number of critics who decried Jez Butterworth’s The Winterling for its allegedly comprehensive debt to Harold Pinter, but who did so having attended previews of the show because on its opening night they (like me, hence this abbreviated column) were in Turin for the events surrounding the presentation of the Europe Theatre Prize to… Harold Pinter.  Most conspicuously, Michael Billington wrote that Pinter’s “distinctive voice is currently reverberating through British drama in ways that begin to worry me”, though it didn’t seem to worry him enough to raise the issue in the Pinter symposia he chaired or the interview he conducted with the great man.


Clearly, this isn’t a black-and-white issue, and what reviewers are expressing reservations about is not the mere fact of Pinterian influence, but its supposed extent.  Even so, how can we on the one hand praise Pinter for having fundamentally remade the language and landscape of drama and on the other condemn Butterworth for having taken that on board?  (For the acknowledged debt has never been in doubt; on the contrary, Pinter himself felt enough of a connection with Butterworth’s writing to take a part in the film version of his first play Mojo.)  Indeed, is the extent of influence even as great as we perceive it?  Synchronicities, strange connections, currents and echoes – whether of literary influence or, say, the occurrence of a lucky number –  are to a considerable extent dependent on our readiness to spot them, whether they “are” “really” there or not.  It’s easy to parody the more Pinterian moments in The Winterling (as, I admit, I was doing after the performance I saw belatedly, with another critic who shall remain nameless, when director Ian Rickson came upon us… oops); once attuned to that frequency, it takes more effort to hear the more characteristically Butterworthian tones familiar from Mojo.  What I find worrying is the word that, as a result of the reviews reprinted herein, Butterworth is considering giving up playwriting, which only a couple of weeks ago he was speaking of as the most satisfying avenue of his writing career.  It’s no skin off his nose financially – he apparently earns a comfortable living as a movie script-doctor – but the rest of us could end up much the poorer if he does leave theatre.  That’s no reason to go easy on him, or on anyone; but it is, after all, our job to look further into these works.  As it is, the only review printed here that doesn’t use the P-word is Mark Shenton’s Sunday Express paragraph, and that’s only 36 words long.


Similarly with Mark Ravenhill’s The Cut, criticised on the one hand for an allegedly excessive debt to Pinter’s more recent political works, and on the other for lacking the specificity of those works’ imagery.  People seem to find the metaphor of the cut itself unsatisfyingly vague.  Well, who says it is a metaphor?  Surely it is a more general symbol or emblem.  Charles Spencer comes close, I think, when he says he thinks it symbolises “almost anything liberal, western audiences might feel troubled about”.  But I think there’s more to it than that.  The character John is eager to be cut, evidently seeing it as a kind of absolution, validation, even liberation; the uncut, led by Ian McKellen’s torturer (who, especially on Paul Wills’ authoritarian-majestic set, reminded me inescapably of Michael Palin’s half-scrupulous torturer in Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil), are racked by various worries and guilts.  This suggests to me that the cut is an emblem of such guilt, such conscience itself, rather than any nexus of issues which might excite such feelings.  Those who are cut, conform; those who do the cutting (in the widest sense – those of their social and political class) define conformity.  The cut is explicitly a mechanism of social pacification employed in parallel with programmes of imprisonment and “re-education” in universities.  The play seems to me to portray the world as bleakly divided between those who collude in its various atrocities through wilful ignorance or because of a reassuring sense of belonging, and those who administer the various programmes in full knowledge (or reasonable suspicion) of what they are doing.  In this reading, it is about the luxury, and in many ways also the sterility, of guilt or compassion.  It’s a kind of consideration that is in scant evidence among the reviews; have we, then, already been “re-educated” at our own various universities into not seeing ourselves too readily in such dramatic mirrors, or have we already been cut without our even noticing it?

And finally…

Ian S, to the reviewer sitting in front of him at Pete & Dud: Come Again (in a reference to one of their most famously filthy Derek & Clive routines): “’Ere, what’s the worst job you ever ’ad?”
The other reviewer (name withheld): “Sitting through that Jeremy Irons thing [Embers] last week.”

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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