My favourite Pinter by Tamsin Greig, Robert Glenister and Janie Dee

Tamsin Greig on The Homecoming

As a teenager I used to quote lines from The Homecoming as if they were my own, like “I’ll chop your spine off!” I studied the play at school and a group of actors including Christopher Benjamin and Roger Lloyd-Pack came in to do a rehearsed reading of it. I was probably about 16. It was brilliant. I’ve never seen a full production but The Homecoming has stuck with me through the years

‘It’s threatening but tantalising’ … Tamsin Greig. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian

It peeps through the window of a London family: a patriarch and his three sons, one of whom is returning from America with his wife. She comes into this maelstrom of maleness and is unintimidated by their power-mongering. It’s dark, threatening but tantalising too. You feel repelled but magnetised.

There’s a beautiful exchange between Lenny and Ruth where he says he is going to take her glass and she says, “If you take the glass … I’ll take you.” I was really struck by the power of this character who happens to be a woman, who on a very simple level just wants to drink her water but also has the guts to say: if you overstep my boundary then I will really surprise you. I also love Lenny’s line about waking in the night and hearing the house tick. I was slightly threatened by the idea that a house has a nature. Pinter does this amazing thing of making you very sensitive to your surroundings.

I’ve been reading his love poetry to Lady Antonia Fraser, which is breathtakingly beautiful. There’s a lurking sorrow and fear in many of his plays, but it’s not present in his love poems. They’re pure, deep, passionate and really simple. In his last poem he wrote: “I shall miss you so much when I’m dead.” I remember my mum saying the same to me many years earlier when she was dying. I really connected with that idea – it is not that the person is afraid of dying, but that they’re conscious of the loss that they will incur. So I was thrilled to read that he had the same revelation.

John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Michael Feast and Terence Rigby in No Man’s Land at the National Theatre in 1975.

John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Michael Feast and Terence Rigby in No Man’s Land at the National Theatre in 1975. Photograph: Donald Cooper/Rex/Shutterstock

Robert Glenister on No Man’s Land

I saw the original production of No Man’s Land, starring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, at the National Theatre when I was a teenager. I remember the safety curtain broke down just after the interval so we stared at Gielgud’s legs from the knees down for about 15 minutes before they decided it wasn’t going to happen. We went back a few weeks later for act two.

Robert Glenister

‘He had a twinkle about him’ … Robert Glenister Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

It was quite something to see those two lions of British theatre take on the roles of Spooner and Hirst. They were very funny.

The play is set in the living room of a house near Hampstead Heath, late on a summer night. Hirst is a wealthy literary figure who has met Spooner in a pub and brought him home. One’s assumption is that Spooner is the vulnerable character – he’s an ineffectual, ramshackle sponger – and that Hirst and his cronies are the toughies. But Spooner seems to me to be far cleverer. That’s what Pinter does. He sends you off on a tangent, then challenges your assumptions. Maybe, in the characters of Hirst and Spooner, Pinter was exploring two different sides of what could have happened to him: either becoming trapped in fame, or being a failure who thinks he is significantly better than he is.

What’s interesting to me, from starring in Moonlight in the West End season too, is the sense that within a single individual there can be the brutal and the sensitive. I was pretty much a Pinter virgin coming into the season. I did a short film version of Victoria Station, with Rufus Sewell and directed by Douglas Hodge. I met Harold once when the National was reviving The Hothouse. Ian Rickson was directing and said: I’m not sure if there’s anything for you in this but come and meet Harold. He was quite frail but absolutely charming. He had a twinkle about him. Ian said, “Let’s have a read of this scene.” All of a sudden, I found myself acting with Harold Pinter in a rehearsal room at the National Theatre. He enjoyed reading his own work. He made himself laugh – it was as if he’d forgotten he’d written the lines. It was a bizarre but great 20 minutes.

Janie Dee as Emma in Betrayal with Hugo Speer as Robert at the Theatre Royal, Bath, in 2003.

Janie Dee as Emma in Betrayal with Hugo Speer as Robert at the Theatre Royal, Bath, in 2003. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Janie Dee on Betrayal

Harold’s plays are about life as we know it. You can find yourself in them, if you let your mind and heart do what they’re telling you, rather than thinking you’re not clever enough to understand it all.

Janie Dee.

‘He never demonises’ … Janie Dee. Photograph: Dave Benett/Getty Images

Betrayal was partly based on his affair with Joan Bakewell. It was very brave of him to put it out there. Peter Hall asked me to do the play in a season at Bath. We toured it and came to the West End where Joan saw it and thanked me for playing her as an intelligent, warm person. She said that Emma was often portrayed as cold.

Aden Gillett played Jerry, who has an affair with Emma, and Hugo Speer was Robert, who is Emma’s husband and Jerry’s best friend. The play is about betrayal of everyone – and with everyone. The questions at the end are: what does betrayal mean and who are you really betraying? The victim is quite often yourself.

When I read the play, I thought, gosh, I know this story rather well from my childhood. The same sort of thing happened with my parents and another couple, who are now all great friends. I grew to understand each of the characters as I did it. What’s interesting about Betrayal is that it goes backwards, so you’re left with the incident that caused the whole terrible thing. It’s a wonderful observation of how people get it wrong without meaning to. I was very grateful to have done it. The play never demonises but humanises.

I was sitting in a taxi with Harold once, when we’d been doing Betrayal for a bit, and halfway home I asked him about one of the characters in the play. I said: “What’s the meaning of Casey?” I’d become a little bit over-analytical. He said: “Jesus, Janie, you sound like an American university student! He’s a publisher. That’s it! There’s nothing weird about it.” He expected you to trust yourself. If you asked him about something he’d written, he’d answer: “I don’t know. I just wrote it.”

  • Pinter at the Pinter, a season of one-act plays, is at the Harold Pinter theatre, London, until 23 February. Betrayal is at the Harold Pinter theatre from 5 March.

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