No Man’s Land, National Theatre, London (FIVE STARS):
Comparisons between Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett are, perhaps, drearily predictable. They are also thoroughly sustainable. The works of the two dramatists share many things in common, not least a timelessness which renders No Man’s Land, which the playwright is directing in this new production, as lithe and penetratingly hilarious as the day it was born in 1975. Whilst nominally located in a decaying, post-imperial North West London, Pinter’s ageing men of letters, Hirst and Spooner, find themselves in an existentialist limbo world not a million miles from where Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is situated.
Pinter is a master at generating a false sense of security, as both director and author. At the outset, as we are introduced to the superb Corin Redgrave and John Wood as the variably successful poets, we appear to be in an English drawing-room comedy. The exaggerated expressions of the actors during the much -discussed Pinter silences only heighten the sense that we are witnessing the beginning of a farce.
The tables are soon turned and the violently fluctuating, alcohol-fuelled reminiscences of the irascible Hirst and the energetic fantasist Spooner come to resemble a strange mixture of the unequal relations between Estragon and Vladimir, and Pozzo and Lucky in Waiting for Godot.
Which is not to say that No Man’s Land becomes a Beckett play. It is very much a drama in the distinct voice of Pinter, who remains one of the most startlingly original playwrights in the English language. Imagine Waiting for Godot invaded by Ben and Gus, the hitmen from Pinter’s own The Dumb Waiter and you have something of a sense of this too rarely performed work.
Hirst is resigned, often cruel and ludicrously grand, whilst Spooner is defeated and overcome by a seminal angst. Hirst’s ‘men’, Foster and Briggs, an indeterminate combination of police officers and East End criminals, impose a form of order on Spooner’s inveigling. “I’m not a cunt”, says Foster, the malevolent secretary, but you rather suspect he is.
Pinter has described No Man’s Land as “a comedy about death”, which is as true as a number of other observations one might make of this gloriously abstract and disquieting play. One could speculate endlessly about the work’s relations to various themes, from the end of empire to the meaninglessness of being, but it would not suffice. Ultimately, we are coerced, like a hapless character in a Pinter play, into relating to the piece primarily on the basis of its reflections on human relations.
Those reflections are, first and foremost, extremely funny. From Spooner’s self-deprecating pretentiousness and Hirst’s denunciation of his companion as a “weekend wanker”, to the Freudian extravaganza of sexual and literary abuse, we are treated to Pinter’s linguistic gymnastics at their unpredictable best.
The beauty of Pinter directing this production himself is that the presentation does not show an undue reverence for the much-vaunted Pinteresque style. Instead it betrays a tremendous sense of rediscovery of the language and the action.
Danny Dyer and Andy de la Tour play Foster and Briggs with a fabulously intimidating nonchalance. Redgrave’s timing and sense of anticipation and his tremendous and variable presence, are joyous. Wood’s spectacular effervescence, whether in indignation or obsequiousness, is equally brilliant.
The result of this revisiting of No Man’s Land by its author is a genuinely extraordinary piece of theatre. As humorous, thought provoking and perplexingly resistant to analysis as we could possibly ask.
This review was originally published in Scotland on Sunday on 16 December 2001
© Mark Brown