THE FAVOURITE SON:
RARELY in recent years can a British theatre production have generated such expectations as the National Theatre’s new presentation of Harold Pinter’s brilliant and original play No Man’s Land. Directed by the playwright himself and starring outstanding actors Corin Redgrave and John Wood in the lead roles, it was universally acclaimed when it opened at the National last November.
Son of the great actor Sir Michael Redgrave, Corin, like his sisters Vanessa and Lynn, was almost destined for the acting profession. In a career which has spanned four decades, he has played many major characters on stage and screen, from Rosmer in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm at the Young Vic in London to Edward Heath in Jimmy McGovern’s recent film Sunday. He began film acting in 1964, and in 1969 took a role alongside sister Vanessa in Sir Richard Attenborough’s Oh! What a Lovely War.
The 62-year-old London-born actor’s passion for theatre has seen him move into the production side of drama. In 1993, he, his wife – the actress Kika Markham – and his sister Vanessa set up the Moving Theatre Company. He is also an associate artistic director of the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas. In 1995, his biography of his father, Michael Redgrave: My Father, was published.
Well known, like Vanessa, for adherence to the revolutionary socialist politics of Leon Trotsky, the actor is a prominent supporter of the campaign for the release of Mordechai Vanunu, the whistleblower who remains in solitary confinement in Israel for revealing details of the state’s nuclear weapons programme.
He is also a founder member of Symposium 90, an international association which researches the consequences of Stalinist rule in the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries.
Diverse though his interests are, when I meet Redgrave at the National Theatre in London he is immersed in his current project. No Man’s Land revolves around the characters of Hirst, a wealthy but declining poet, and Spooner, a desperate bankrupt – played by John Wood – whose poetry has clearly brought him little success. The roles create one of the great comic double acts of modern theatre, and the interplay between Redgrave and Wood is arguably the finest thing about the production.
“They’re opposites, aren’t they?” asks Redgrave, rhetorically. “Spooner recognises that when he says (to Hirst), ‘You’re a reticent man’. Spooner is the very opposite of a reticent man. It tumbles out of him in a great excess of information, fantasy, self-love and, perhaps, self-hatred.”
In contrast to Wood’s character, who demands tremendous linguistic energy throughout, Redgrave thinks “the weight of Hirst’s life has crushed all but a very few words out of him.” The character’s occasional moments of verbal expansiveness are “probably for chemical reasons.” “It just happens that the blood-alcohol levels have reached the right amount to trigger off that evanescent moment of great bonhomie.”
Alcohol, indeed, could be said to be the fifth character in No Man’s Land. Its copious consumption by the protagonists alters not only their moods, but also their perceptions.
Redgrave admits to being fascinated by the facts, such as they are, of his character’s past. Such fascination is, he explains, part of his method as an actor. “I can’t approach such a person (as Hirst) without seeing a certain history that is contained within them,” he says. “It might change a bit night by night, but I still have to imagine that history. I have to imagine what school they went to, who their contemporaries were, what kind of music they listened to, because I can’t go on stage or in front of a camera unless I’ve got some answers.”
With Pinter, whose plays are notoriously ambiguous where such details are concerned, he must have his work cut out? “Although Harold, famously, doesn’t give you any more previous history to his characters than is contained in the text, there is actually quite a lot of it within the text, more than appears at first glance.”
Redgrave sees certain “correspondences”, rather than direct parallels, between his character and one of the 20th century’s greatest poets. “I didn’t ask Harold if he had TS Eliot in mind,” he says, “but he certainly refers to Eliot, directly and indirectly, in the play.” Like Hirst, he contends, “Eliot became a man who was almost silenced by his success.”
Redgrave also finds that the playwright has made astute observations of the old British class system. “If you were to examine the servants of English country gentlemen,” he says, “you would find some characters remarkably similar to Foster and Briggs (servants played by Danny Dyer and Andy de la Tour). I think it’s a brilliant way of tapping into those peculiar relations between English gentlemen and their servants. You find it with the Marmaduke Husseys of this world. Who are their best friends? Vinnie Jones, I should think. And who’s Vinnie Jones’s best friend? Christ knows, if he has one.”
Redgrave suggests Pinter’s method is “entirely Shakespearean, in the sense that there is no stage direction. You have to find out. There is great, great freedom. There are infinite ways of playing all the parts. Only very great romantic play writing is, in my opinion, open to such a wealth of interpretations”.
This interview was originally published in Scotland on Sunday on 7 April 2002
© Mark Brown