the play about Beckett and Pinter teaming up for a game of cricket

Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter had a lot in common. Both changed the way plays are written and perceived, both were Nobel laureates and both had a passion for cricket. The last link is a crucial factor in a new play by Shomit Dutta, Stumped, which will be streamed live from Lord’s.

Produced by the Original Theater Company, it will star Stephen Tompkinson as Beckett and Andrew Lancel as Pinter, and is described by Dutta as “a trick, a shared dream”. Imagine Waiting for Godot crossed with The Dumb Waiter in a cricket context and you get the general idea.

Dutta is a multi-faceted figure who has written an original play about the Trojan War and translated Greek drama, teaches classics at a London school and is a former captain of the cricket team, the Gaieties, that was Pinter’s pride and joy. Still, I wonder what prompted him to make a play out of two of the most iconic figures in modern drama.

“The idea originally came from another Gaieties member, Inigo Thomas, who suggested I write a sketch to coincide with a Beckett festival in Enniskillen. But during lockdown in 2020 I decided to turn the sketch into a play at full length, partly inspired by Aristophanes’ The Frogs. In that play Aristophanes brings to life two of his favorite dramatists, Aeschylus and Euripides, but where he takes the underworld as his setting, I chose a more neutral space. Pinter’s plays are largely set indoors and Beckett’s in a dystopian landscape, so an idyllic cricket ground, where both men first wait to bat, seemed like a nice compromise.”

While Beckett and Pinter were friends, I suggest that they were very different in temperament and technique. Beckett’s plays are darker, more abstract, ultimately more image-based than Pinter’s. “I won’t disagree,” says Dutta. “Where Pinter’s characters are pugilistic, Beckett’s often seem nostalgic. Pinter’s characters contest the space between them, while Beckett’s speak more in isolation – think Lucky in Godot or the mouth in Not I – and often express themselves in a void. Stalemate seems like a word that applies to Beckett, while with Pinter it is the possibility of escape. As soon as I say that, I think of exceptions: look at the end of No Man’s Land, one of my favorite plays, where the characters seem frozen in time. But I hope my play will bring out the crucial differences between the two writers.”

Dutta had the advantage of knowing Pinter through the Gaieties, for whom the playwright was at various times player, match director and chairman. What are his memories of the author? “The first non-cricket remark I made to Harold was that since he was wearing a winter coat in May he looked a bit like Davies in The Caretaker. I don’t think he took it too well. But when it came to Gaieties, Harold tried to instill a bloody mind and make it clear how deeply he felt about the club, about cricket and about winning. At the same time, he was not a hurler, and the Gaieties have always been marked by a total independence of mind.”

What is fascinating is the umbilical connection between theater and cricket. Why is it that not only Beckett and Pinter but legions of playwrights and actors have a passion for the game? “I suppose,” says Dutta, “that cricket and drama both work through metaphor. Drama is not mimetic like the 19th-century novel and cricket gives you something that is and is not reality. The beginning of an innings is a birth, and the end of a – as I know to my cost as a batsman – is very similar to a death. The weather in cricket is a determining factor and is quite like the mysterious forces you find in Greek tragedy. A batsman or a bowler must also be equally capable of defending or attack as a character in a play—especially in Pinter where words can be a shifting source of evasion or aggression.”

While Dutta is driven by a love of cricket and the classics – and he delights in the fact that state school pupils are encouraged to do Latin GCSE – he is also working on a number of original plays. “I have a project about a meeting between Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde that took place during Wilde’s first US tour. I am also writing something about the encounter between two magicians, Jasper Maskelyne and a German with the stage name Kalanag, whose talents for deception were deployed by their respective armies in World War II.” When I point out that he seems preoccupied with oppositional men, Dutta counters that he has already written a play about Helen of Troy and is working on a Jacobean-style drama about the painter Artemisia Gentileschi.

But now his focus is on Beckett and Pinter, and I wonder what he hopes Stumped will achieve. “There are,” he says, “two potential audiences: cricket lovers and those whose main interest is in theatre. What they want is a conflict between two characters who are dramatists, in a situation that can shift quickly from attack to defence. I see Beckett as a man with a foil and Pinter as a man with a saber.”

It brings me back to The Frogs where there is a contest to decide whether Aeschylus or Euripides is the greater dramatist. It will be fascinating to see if Dutta’s Aristophanic play sparks a similar debate about two indisputable titans of modern drama.

• Stumped will be streamed live from Lord’s on 10 September and available on demand from 27 September.

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