Dallas — The Festival of Independent Theatres (FIT) opened its 20th anniversary season with WingSpan Theatre Company’s production of a rarely staged 1968 Harold Pinter play called Landscape. Originally running afoul of official theater censors due to its strong language, it was produced as a radio play by the BBC. Landscape was first staged the following year by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The play concerns middle-aged couple Beth and Duff. There’s a palpable tension in the space between them, though the audience doesn’t know why. Duff sits at a kitchen table; Beth sits in a chair far removed from the table as if they don’t even share the same space. The simple set contains the two characters, fixing them to a space that is generically specific.
Something else the audience doesn’t know is how the two characters are connected. Are they a married couple? Ex-lovers?
In Pinter’s stage directions, Duff refers normally to Beth, but he doesn’t appear to hear her voice. Beth, who never looks in Duff’s direction, doesn’t appear to hear him either. The language that passes between them is clipped. Telegraphic. The stories they relate have very little content, as if the act of communication itself were stripped of information and intimacy.
Pinter once explained that there are two kinds of silence: one when nothing is spoken at all and the other when everything is spoken in order to avoid the quiet: “One way of looking at speech is to say it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.” In a script with detailed explanations about draught beer and nostalgic musing about a beach visit, it’s clear that Landscape employs this second type of silence.
It’s difficult to imagine a more perfectly cast couple than Moira Wilson as Beth and Van Quattro as Duff. Both actors have the chops to muster the gravitas while maintaining an equally necessary levity to give life to these characters. They make Pinter’s weird little play sublimely affecting.
At first glance, it appears that Beth is the one more in touch with her emotions. She asks, “Would you like a baby? Children? Babies? Of our own. Would be nice…. Pause. Our own child? Would you like that?” The audience never learns the response to this barrage of questions posed to an unnamed man, referred to by Beth as simply “my man,” who is lying on the dunes of the beach. Ultimately, the audience doesn’t even get confirmation that the man on the beach is Duff himself.
Duff, on the other hand, happily relates a story about a treacherous path he walked down the day before: “Mind you, there was a lot of shit all over the place, all along the paths, by the pond. Dogshit, duckshit … all kinds of shit … all over the paths. The rain didn’t clean it up.” (This description, along with a couple of “buggers” and the F-word is the extent of the strong language.)
He seems keen to talk about the weather and to share his gruff interactions with strangers. He repeatedly refers to a rainstorm portentously as a “downfall.” He also too often forgets about the dog that accompanies him on his walks about town.
The single pseudo-interaction that the couple share centers on the word “grave.” Beth recounts that a man referred to the way she attended to the flowers as grave, as her gravity. Later, Duff confesses, “I was thinking … when you were young … you didn’t laugh much. You were … grave. Silence.” But as with the man on the beach, we never learn if this shared word ultimately refers to the same grave person.
What we do know is that the couple seem to share Mr. Sykes’ house “in peace,” with no one to bother them, and that the house is on the outskirts of a village, possibly not too far from a beach.
One gets the feeling that this couple might be an older, wearier version of Adam and Eve after expulsion from the Garden. The absent homeowner Mr. Sykes could be the absent God who has condemned them to wander an abandoned beach (Beth: “There wasn’t a soul on the beach. Except for an elderly man, far away on a breakwater.”) and an empty park (Duff: “Suddenly I realized there wasn’t a soul in the park. The rain had stopped. Pause. What did you think of that downfall?”). They are left alone even though they appear to have been left together.
Or perhaps Mr. Sykes is Psyche or their personal psyches, the totality of their all-too-human minds lost among memories and impressions.
Pinter intentionally confuses the perspectives by offering different versions of the same story, of the same events. In Beth’s story, even she isn’t clear about who is looking or who is walking. Is it the unnamed women she sees on the beach, or is it Beth herself? All we know is that there is looking and walking being done on the beach. Neither active nor quite passive, this third-voice narrative seems fitting for whatever exists, or has happened, between the two characters.
Through her words, Beth seems to long for a connection, yet she speaks to no one in particular. She never directly address Duff, who genuinely tries to engage her, even if only by complimenting her housekeeping.
Eventually it is Duff who breaks through the stalemate long enough to share authentic emotion. With a voice full of pathos and urgency, Quattro’s Duff implores, “Do you like me to talk to you? Pause. Do you like me to tell you about all the things I’ve been doing? Pause. About all the things I’ve been thinking? Pause. Mmmnn? Pause. I think you do.” Beth remains distant, focused on her own story that seems to have neither purpose nor conclusion. Beth tells her story, but it is not to share it with Duff. Her eyes and face belie the rambling narrative; they express what her words, her tone of voice, cannot.
There are no extraneous movements. It is as if the couple are somehow bound to each other, forced to ever revolve in one another’s orbit without the slightest wobble. Extraordinarily natural and mundane movements of drinking tea and cleaning a pipe offer a respite from the dialog that never takes place.
With perfect diction and timing, the two actors fully embody the stunted characters. The play is poignant and heartrending, although it is difficult to know why. Is it because we instinctively recognize the sly tricks we employ in order to maintain the illusion of communication with a loved one?
Director Susan Sargeant has done a superb job with Landscape. The subtle lighting design adds a lovely dynamic to the simple play, especially when it captures the glare of the beach from Beth’s memories while leaving Duff in shadow. Costumes, designed by Barbara C. Cox, are compelling.
One of the best features of a festival like FIT is that theater companies can produce rarely seen gems like Harold Pinter’s Landscape. For a 50-year-old play in which characters seem to not hear one another and not a lot happens, it still has a lot to say.
» Landscape continues in the following performance blocks:
- 8pm Thursday, July 19
- 8pm Friday, July 27
- 8pm Thursday, Aug. 2
The 20th Festival of Independent Theatres
July 13- August 4, 2018
Bath House Cultural Center,
521 E. Lawther Drive, Dallas
Tickets and passes go on sale in late June
Call 800-617-6904 or visit www.festivalofindependenttheatres.org