Caught Between Life and Death

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Review of "No Man's Land" by Harold Pinter, Lyttleton Theatre, London

Harold Pinter has a unique distinction - he has two phenomena named after him. The 'Pinteresque' has come to refer to his complex and challenging theatrical style, while a 'Pinterism' is, according to pro-war journalist David Aaronovitch, an ill judged and unjustified criticism of US foreign policy.

So Pinter has made his anti-establishment mark in both theatre and politics. This would make any production of his work worth a look. The current revival of Pinter's 1975 play No Man's Land at the National Theatre comes with other recommendations.

The play originally starred John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, and was a huge success. Few directors have dared to take up the challenge of following in its wake. It is Pinter himself who has undertaken to revive this celebrated play now.

No Man's Land is a famously difficult play. For many years it has been a source of controversy among critics and academics. But the play's reputation shouldn't put anyone off going to see it. No Man's Land is not a wilfully obscure or consciously difficult work. On the contrary, it is a hugely funny and entertaining play.

One critic, Patrick Marber, wrote that No Man's Land is about taking the piss and getting pissed. Two writers meet in a pub on Hampstead Heath. One - Spooner, played by John Wood - is down on his luck. The other - Hirst, played by Corin Redgrave - maintains his aristocratic home. They return to Hirst's opulent apartments to carry on drinking.

Their relationship is fuelled by vast consumption of alcohol. They go through a series of emotions (in a way any drinker will instantly recognise), and they are, by turns, sentimental and belligerent, self pitying and manipulative, vicious and amusing.

Late at night they are joined by Hirst's two servants. Andy de la Tour is hilarious as Briggs and Danny Dyer is menacing as Foster. The situation becomes one of shifting allegiances and accusations. Who is using who? Who is protecting who? Is there anything sexual in this tangle of relationships? Who needs who the most?

The next morning brings slightly more sobriety but no more clarity. These are men whose lives are bound together and bound up in a past that has long since slipped from their grasp. But the past they are still unravelling has the power to hurt them.

They are confined to a personal no man's land of shrinking artistic powers and increasing impotence. Hirst is suffering from writer's block. Spooner, we suspect, simply invents his former glory. They are both caught somewhere between life and death. But despite this grim subject matter it is not a depressing play. There is little point in trying to work out exactly what is going on and what these characters have been to each other.

Pinter has written that he often feels his characters find their own life. These brilliant characters are inhabiting their own universe. I don't think the audience joins them completely in it. But it is fascinating and funny to watch them performing for each other and for the audience. This is vintage Pinter. It is a treat to see this celebrated play directed by its author.