LONDON—Harold Pinter’s The Proust Screenplay may be the greatest film never made. Spanning the entire seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Pinter’s adaptation is a miracle of distillation. Built like a double helix of Proustian DNA, the screenplay proceeds on two levels. Visually, a kaleidoscope of color, imagery, and sound establishes memory’s unchronological path. Dramatically, the narrative dwells on those tales of self-inflicted jealousy involving Swann and Odette, and later, Marcel and Albertine. Obviously much is left out (there’s not a madeleine to be found), but what’s remarkable is how well Pinter tracks Marcel’s evolving consciousness—the disillusionment of love leading to an epiphany of art’s enduring revelatory power. Joseph Losey was to have directed the picture, but his death in 1984, combined with Hollywood’s bottom-line mentality, consigned the project to the shelf. The publication of the screenplay in book form only intensified the sense of frustration at the film not being made.
Not surprisingly, the staging of Pinter’s screenplay at London’s National Theatre has garnered more than the usual buzz. Yet to appreciate the accomplishment of director Di Trevis, who convinced Pinter to collaborate with her on this adaptation, one needs to put aside the dream of the film. This isn’t easy to do. Epic novels tend to translate better as movies than plays for the simple reason that the camera has less trouble keeping up with the plot. (Conveying the vision behind the prose, however, is another matter.)
Challenged with a work that travels more than 30 years in time, Trevis comes up with a spare theatrical style that tries to find analogies to Pinter’s stunning cinematic collage. The tolling of a bell brings us back to Combray, where young Marcel pines for his mother’s dilatory kiss. The clinking of a spoon ushers us into Madame Verdurin’s salon of savage social climbers. A band of four girls, dressed in fluttery white and walking arm in arm, conjures the seaside resort of Balbec, where Marcel meets his future wife and later begins to suspect that she may be a lesbian. The final reception at the Guermantes’ house in 1921 culminates in a geriatric waltz.
As in any adaptation of Proust’s inexhaustible narrative, including Raúl Ruiz’s darkly hypnotic film Time Regained, intimacy with the original is a decided advantage. It’s hard to judge how much those who haven’t read a good chunk of the novel, especially the first and last books, would glean from Trevis’s treatment. Yet if the characters aren’t always adequately introduced and if the storytelling has gaps, the three-hour production is adept at synthesizing Proust’s grand themes. Does this make it sound like the stage equivalent of Cliffs Notes? If so, the fault lies more with the caricature quality of the acting than with Trevis’s dramaturgical vision.
This is the opposite of the problem encountered during a weeklong binge of London theatergoing, which featured a number of graceful performances trying to redeem gimp-legged productions. Whether it was Vanessa Redgrave’s radiantly irrational Ranevskaya in the National’s The Cherry Orchard or Ian McDiarmid’s still embittered Prospero in the Almeida’s The Tempest, it was a case of superlative acting being hampered by less than superlative directing. As for Jessica Lange’s reported West End triumph in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, it was hard not to imagine how much more powerful she would have been had her director, Robin Phillips, been able to discourage her languorous Blue Sky affectations and her newly acquired Katharine Hepburn voice. (London critics seemed to prefer Lange’s star turns to her underrated costar, Charles Dance, whose unfussy performance as James Tyrone remains the most heartbreaking element of the show.) As for Pinter acting, there’s no greater example on the planet right now than Michael Gambon’s embodiment of the homeless bum Davies in The Caretaker. Here the hype is well deserved—an actor’s genius not only transforming seamlessly into his character’s flea-bitten skin but overcoming the unbalancing effect of a less than menacing costar in Rupert Graves.
The strongest performer in Trevis’s production, Sebastian Harcombe makes a reasonably convincing Marcel. While lacking the uncanny resemblance to Proust of Marcello Mazzarella, the Italian actor who haunted Ruiz’s film, Harcombe has eyes that progressively darken with clouds of disappointment. If he doesn’t exactly seem French, at least he doesn’t seem as cartoonishly English as Janine Duvitski, who plays Madame Verdurin as though she were a busybody neighbor in a BBC sitcom. The camp excess of David Rintoul’s Baron de Charlus (imagine the role as performed by the Galloping Gourmet) led one to question Trevis’s approach to Proust’s gallery of snobs. With the exception of Duncan Bell’s dignified Swann, the rest of the rich and famous seem like a collection of grotesque mannerisms and defects. With society so ostentatiously swinish (not even the Duchesse de Guermantes has any seductive appeal), Marcel would have never dillydallied so long before beginning his immense literary labor.
Strange that Trevis, an actor who played Odette years ago in a Glasgow production of someone else’s Proust adaptation, should have such difficulty marshaling her troupe beyond two-dimensional stereotypes. Still, her ingenious textual collaboration with Pinter has laid the groundwork for other theatrical productions—the flicker of promise in her own demonstrates that the play needn’t be cold comfort for the unrealized film.