Silly Mid On

Harold Pinter, No Man’s Land (National Theatre Encore)

I suspect I’ve seen more films with Pinter scripts than plays — there was a baffling Dumb Waiter at school, a sweary Mountain Language on tv and probably a BBC Two The Birthday Party when they still did plays. I’ve probably seen more Beckett and certain more Ayckbourn and Stoppard. But then I fell out of love with theatre in my teens.

Beckett seems the key name to me — the imprisoning of a small number of characters within a small space (that’s a Buñuel film too), arguments and banter this side of violence, a sense of the bleak whilst still permitting laughs and above all a flavour of the Deep and Meaningful (if you could but work out what).

Pinter’s 1975 play has Hirst and Spooner as its Vladimir and Estragon, Briggs and Foster as its Pozzo and Lucky. The poet, critic and essayist Hirst has evidentially picked the failing poet Spooner up at a Hampstead pub, possibly Jack Straw’s Castle, and brought him home for a nightcap, and the two appear strangers. They drink vodka and whisky, until Hirst is on the edge of passing out. Spooner is joined by Foster, a thirty-something who appears to be Hirst’s secretary and may be a hoodlum, and then Briggs, housekeeper and possibly body guard. They are suspicious of the stranger, sceptical, and Spooner is kept over night.

In the Second Act, Spooner is forced to be someone else — sitting in for Hirst’s financial advisor, being mistaken (perhaps) for Hirst’s university friend, trying to become Hirst’s secretary. And all the while is the killing kindness of Briggs and Foster, threatening to become actual violence. The characters are trapped in a series of games of cat and mouse, with it being unclear who the mouse is. How far are the characters a projection of Hirst’s? How far is it a psychodrama of Spooner’s? The metacommentary of Spooner’s familiarity with being locked in a room over night or the menace of an unlocked room points to interrogations, either during the Second World War or the Cold War, and Hirst claims he was in intelligence. Foster notes that he was sent for — there are secret forces at work perhaps, but then Rosencrantz and Guildernstern were also sent for.

The names point to cricketers — George Hirst, RH “Reggie” Spooner, Frank Foster and Johnny Briggs — and Hirst thinks the last time he saw the man he takes Spooner for was at Lords, in the shadow of the Second World War in 1939. The no man’s land is both within Hirst and between enemies at war. The term, of course, is more generally applied to the First World War and if memory serves Philip Larkin’s “MCMXIV” refers to

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park…

as an example of an earlier lost innocence.

Ian McKellen, who here plays Spooner, offers a naturalistic explanation gleaned from performing scenes with Patrick Stewart (Hirst) for the late Oliver Sacks. Hirst has some kind of dementia, he genuinely can’t remember who he is some of the time and is used to playing along to hide it. Maybe, I don’t know, there is so much left over.

There are the curious hints at homosexuality — Spooner spending time on Hampstead Heath, a cruising ground (although he insists he is not looking for sex, and claims wife, children and grandchildren at various points in the play), given extra echoes because this is McKellen directed by his ex-partner Sean Matthias. I don’t know if Jack Straw’s Castle was a gay pub, but it’s the name of a Thom Gunn collection published in 1976. Secret identities, secret lives. It’s hinted that Foster and Briggs are lovers — Foster is played by Damien Monolly as omnisexual, as much coming on to Spooner as threatening him and Briggs using sexual innuendo to put Spooner down.

The tone does veer alarmingly — the increasingly dark and menacing first half gives way to the comedy of mistaken identity in the second, before darkness, or peace, descend. I was impressed by all of the cast, although clearly the servant characters have less to do. Apparently there is a film version of the original Peter Hall production, where Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud were in the central roles and (brilliantly) Terence Rigby (Big Al from Alan Plater’s Beiderbecke trilogy) was Briggs.

This production was first shown on Broadway, in a double bill with the McKellen/Stewart/Matthias Waiting for Godot, which I think I preferred, but I’m glad I talked myself into seeing it anyway.

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