Who owns a pause? Sometimes it is hard to say. If a powerful 80-year-old magnate chooses not to answer a question for 50 seconds is it because he is hopelessly out of his depth or because his contempt for the charade he is being obliged to tolerate means he will take as long as he likes before he offers a monosyllable or two?
Perhaps a pause held long enough will curdle the question sent, each second ratcheting up the disdain he has for the inquiry. Perhaps it is a mythic battle for who really owns time: “I will impose my rhythm and answer when I am ready.” But this is a dangerous game. Pausing too long can read as weakness, inarticulacy and ceding power to the questioner. Or perhaps even this is a tactical move, turning contempt into sympathy as we watch an old man under attack.
In theatre we try to make our pauses “live” and “dynamic”. When a play works well, it takes place somewhere between the audience and the stage, because it charges up the space between. It asks the audience to imagine, intuit and decipher what is really happening in front of them, and often that is most vivid in the moments of silence. We look at the journeys of pauses, how they are infused with the energy of what has just happened, then move to a moment of transformation, so the silent moment, like a volcano, then erupts into speech. We ward against passive pauses, when nothing is happening, when an audience feels dead air and look at their watches, by making sure the silences on stage are active hinges between key episodes of the drama. Pauses are “pregnant” because inside something is gestating, growing, about to be born. What will it be that comes into being? The pause is the moment when anything is possible.
A few years ago I found myself in rehearsal for Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, directing the “master of the pause”, Harold Pinter, and asking him to trust the pauses more. Both Beckett and Pinter would understand this week’s events. A charismatic, ruthless patriarch fighting to hang on to his kingdom. Harold and I had the premise that the core of our Beckett play was the void, pure silence, and by deeply mining it, with all its human conflicts and yearnings, we would get close to its darkness and light.
Harold, bravely rehearsing and re-rehearsing, managing tremendous pain, sometimes needed that gentle permission to stay in a moment of silence, allowing the mystery of wordlessness to reverberate. I wonder whether this week, in that air-conditioned room, with the world’s media scrutinising every one of his pauses, Rupert Murdoch ever sensed something of this mystery; or was he too consumed with other things, like panic or fury?
At Tuesday’s select committee hearing, the script was more prescribed. Father and son had been thoroughly briefed and media-trained. A chorus of MPs drilled them with preordained questions. There didn’t appear room for it to spin off into the unexpected. However, the situation was intrinsically so dramatic because of the importance of the subject and our apparent access to these powerful, usually invulnerable characters. The micro detail of each moment was riveting, as if the king and queen themselves had been called to account. And it was also particularly riveting because of the ambiguity of the pauses. Was Rupert Murdoch so skilled at a kind of uber-power game that he was attempting to vaporise each inappropriate inquiry into his company; or were we watching a shell-shocked man so incapable of basic discourse that it almost elicited a strange kind of pity?
I wish I could ask Harold. He would know.
Ian Rickson, a British theatre and film director. He was the artistic director at the Royal Court Theatre in London from 1998 to 2006.