Mean Tears programme note
STRANGE HOW tenaciously the misconception clings, even after years of exposure to Beckett and Pinter (or Chekhov, for that matter), that poetry in the theatre has something to do with elocution classes and the iambic pentameter. It doesn't. And it isn't very cost-effective either: by which I mean it isn't especially spectacular or prejudice-confirming or amusing. On the contrary ifs demanding, often difficult and resistant to assimilation: it requires, in short, an eye and an ear. And this seems not to be an age of romance.
I vividly remember a scene in Peter Gill's first production, A Collier's Friday Night in which Victor Henry, as the autobiographical Lawrence figure, talks to a girl about the poetry of Baudelaire in sensual but extremely precise and concrete terms: and this apprehension of poetry not as idea but as felt reality or accurately recorded truth has always been exemplified in Peter's best work both as director and as writer. The washing of the dead miner's body in The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd and the androgenous confusions of Illyria; the destruction of John Clare's simplicity (in Edward Bond's The Fool) or conspiracies in dark corridors in Venice Preserv'd; all these unfamiliar worlds were realised in the most various and telling poetic detail.
So it has been on the sparer canvases of his plays, each of which has conjured up its distinct atmosphere. Simultaneously intensely specific and mysteriously allusive. Three generations share a bed in The Sleepers' Den; and in Over Gardens Out two boys try to discover the pleasures of suppression. In Small Change middle-aged women dance together with an authenticity of feeling denied to the intellectual protagonist; and Kick for Touch examines darker but no less enigmatic traumas. The reality of each moment contrasts with the impenetrability of time.
This play evokes a different world, but with the same means: poetic means, as you will see.
Christopher Hampton (from the programme of the 1987 National Theatre, Cottesloe production of Mean Tears)
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