No Mans Land - 1992

Programme Cover

Almeida Theatre Company Production, Almeida Theatre, London, November 1992

Hirst - Harold Pinter
Spooner - Paul Eddington
Foster - Douglas Hodge
Briggs - Gawn Grainger

Directed by David Leveaux
Design - Bob Crowley
Lighting - Mark Henderson
Sound - John A Leonard

In the presence of greatness
by John Peter

Here is a portrait of the artist as an actor, a portrait of the artist as an old hand. Actually, at 62, Harold Pinter does not look old at all. He is appearing as an actor for the first time in Britain in 22 years, playing Hirst in his own No Manís Land at the Almeida; and he has that about him which you would fain call master: authority. In theatre jargon this is called stage presence. It is not something they teach at drama schools. It comes from a hard inner confidence in what you are doing, a natural, instinctive understanding of the role you are playing, and a subconscious assumption that when you are on stage, your presence on it will alter its map, its psychological shape. With this razor-sharp, violently restrained production, by David Leveaux, you are literally in the presence of greatness.
Pinter the actor rules the stage like a moody emperor. He is playing a grand, smug, suave and deeply unpleasant man of letters whose sturdy armchair is a throne to which supplicants are brought for homage and humiliation. Hirst is both a crusty Lear who demands faithful devotion, and a crippled Prospero whose magic is fading. Under the hard veneer of confidence you sense the ripples of panic. Hirst sits rock-like, but you can almost hear the slow creaks of his inner fissures.Pinter seems almost to have altered the bone structure of his face. The thrust of the massive jaw suggests pugnacity, but his tight, flat upper lip has a hint of apprehensive old age, and the look of his eyes, both searching and furtive, speaks of insecurity. Alcohol is Hirstís main support. There are few books in sight. When on his feet, he has the typical stiff-legged gait of the upper-class clubman. It can suggest both evasiveness and truculence, as well as a peculiarly English impression of walking masterfully on the deck of a ship in choppy waters. When Ralph Richardson played the part 17 years ago, he portrayed Hirst on the brink of a majestic catatonia: a crumbling statue. Pinterís playing is more up-front and aggressive, never far from belligerence.
This is important because, like all his plays, No Manís Land is a battle for self-preservation. All Pinterís plots are strategies of survival through defence. Someone appears who could be, and unusually is, both aggressor and refugee: a spiritual interloper who could upset the simple compromises of your life. To understand the new arrival is to neutralise him. To be understood by him is to be defeated. Spooner, too whom Hirst has brought home, with a mixture of curiosity and disgust, is both guest and invader, like Davies, the tramp in the Caretaker, or Anna in Old Times: he will have to be either subdued or ejected. He is shabby, wary, and regally ingratiating. Paul Eddington presents him with pitiless psychological accuracy as a born supplicant nourished by frustration. I am disappointed, therefore I am. Spooner is proud of his humility. He is a sexless and bedraggled fugitive of the emotions, whose thin, downturned lips seem to invite the inevitable rejection. Hirst is a figure of defensive aggression; Spooner, of aggressive defence.

Harold Pinter with the cast

The play moves on two levels. Like everything by Pinter, it is about insecurity. Spooner is a poet and translator, none too successful, who seeks the protection of the grand and successful Hirst. Hirst has two servants: Foster (Douglas Hodge), flashy and wolfish, a joker, a buccaneer; and Briggs (Gawn Grainger), whippet-like, yet stolid and threatening. Will Spooner be an enemy or an ally? Will they gain greater security with Hirst by a show of defiance? This is a tense and complex conflict, and like all conflicts between Englishmen which cut across the boundaries of class and dependence, it ripples with resentments and unspoken, almost decorous, menace.
But this does not quite explain the almost hallucinatory effect of the play. No, it is haunting because it speaks of, and speaks to, the unconscious. Spooner is not only a down-at-heel poet: he is also Hirstís alter ego, his conscience, his nagging reminder, the painful debit on his spiritual balance sheet. This is why each man keeps recognising features of his life in the other. Hirst is the king of the mind, arrogant but crumbling; Spooner is the exile of the mind, anxious but tenacious. No Manís Land is an anatomy of the creative life ion which smug success is forever haunted by shabby failure, the public posture by the private anguish. In the same way, the confident tycoon or the star politician might sense the unwelcome presence of another, hidden self, more pushy, more humble, both bruised and nourished by rejection.
I have met people who said that they had been totally gripped by this play, but had no idea what it meant. This is usually a sign that the play speaks of something you do not want, or do not dare, to know. In No Manís Land, Pinter has written the great unending drama of self-doubt and self-loathing. The tetchy resentments and territorial aggressions of his earlier plays here becomes a war of a manís inner selves, an account of endless private accountability. What did I once promise myself? What else could I have become? Which of these two selves is my real self? In such a conflict, time is irrelevant. ëIs it,í Hirst asks, ëthe night before last?í It could be any night, or all nights. You are forever eyeball to eyeball with what you might have been, or what you would have liked to be. This is why the ending of the play is both frozen and potentially explosive. The two elderly men are both prisoners and fugitives, hoping to remain and afraid to go. Is this all there is to quests, ambition and fulfilment? Is this all the comfort that failure can hope for? There is something fearless in drawing up an ordnance survey map of no manís land with such unsparing precision. That is why, and not because of its brutally brilliant humour, the play, which could easily sound bleak, is actually bracing: a moral act rather than an amoral acquiescence. Pinterís presence on the stage lends it a sense of grand, rugged authenticity. Like Beckett, he is too proud for the farce of giving and receiving; but he has been to no manís land. If you ever find yourself there, you will not feel so alone
.The Sunday Times, 8th November 1992

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