A Pinter moment

Watched at Palo Alto’s Aquarius Theatre (just four blocks from my house) yesterday:

Two great theatrical knights, and they are spectacular together.

From the theater’s website:

Following their hit run on Broadway, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart return to the West End stage in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, recorded live in 2016 from Wyndham’s Theatre, London. One summer’s evening, two ageing writers, Hirst and Spooner, meet in a Hampstead pub and continue their drinking into the night at Hirst’s stately house nearby. As the pair become increasingly inebriated, and their stories increasingly unbelievable, the lively conversation soon turns into a revealing power game, further complicated by the return home of two sinister younger men. Also starring Owen Teale and Damien Molony, don’t miss this glorious revival of Pinter’s comic classic. The broadcast will be followed by an exclusive Q&A with the cast and director Sean Mathias.

From Wikipedia:

No Man’s Land is a play by Harold Pinter written in 1974 and first produced and published in 1975. Its original production was at the Old Vic Theatre in London by the National Theatre on 23 April 1975, and it later transferred to Wyndhams Theatre, July 1975 – January 1976, the Lyttelton Theatre April–May 1976, and New York October–December, returning to the Lyttelton, January–February 1977.

… Kenneth Tynan railed against the ‘gratuitous obscurity’ of Harold Pinter’s poetic 1975 play when it was first produced by Peter Hall at the National starring John Gielgud as the supplicant versifier Spooner and Ralph Richardson as his host Hirst, patron and supporter of the arts. [Note: it started with what were to become two theatrical knights.] But the play is always gloriously enjoyable as an off-kilter vaudeville of friendship and dependency.”

The play was not always appreciated early on (see Tynan, above). And in its revivals (many over the years), there were still problems: Pinter is obscure, allusive, his characters often hard to read and frequently menacing, alternating between painful silences and outbursts of talk. It’s almost never clear what’s present and real and what’s memory or dream or desire. (Still, the man got the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature.) So we get things like this (also from Wikipedia):

In [a] feature on Goold’s 2008 revival, following the responses of “three Pinter virgins” who did not understand or enjoy it…, the Independent‘s critic, Paul Taylor, reiterates his praise of No Man’s Land, concluding:

Like many classic Pinter plays, “No Man’s Land” is about the reaction to an intruder who threatens the status quo ante. The subtlety that gradually emerges in this play, though, is that Spooner, the seedy Prufrockian failed poet, is the alter ego of his host, the moneyed litterateur, Hirst, and that his predatory intrusion also represents an abortive attempt to reconnect Hirst to life and to his creativity and to save him from the bitter stalemate of old age. Mysterious, bleakly beautiful and very funny, No Man’s Land demonstrates that though it may take a little while to latch on to the laws of Pinterland, it is well worth the effort.

Challenging though the play might be, it is indeed very funny. Just the facial expressions alone garner lots of laughs.

A few notes.

1. The names of the four characters are all names of celebrated cricketers. A little in-joke.

2. There’s an odd gay subtext. At the beginning, Spooner and Hirst exchange some talk about Hampstead Heath (where they, apparently, first connected with one another), and Spooner goes on about “peeping” on the Heath. A note on the Heath, from Wikipedia:

Hampstead Heath (locally known as “the heath”) is a large, ancient London park, covering 320 hectares (790 acres). This grassy public space sits astride a sandy ridge, one of the highest points in London, running from Hampstead to Highgate, which rests on a band of London Clay. The heath is rambling and hilly, embracing ponds, recent and ancient woodlands, a lido, playgrounds, and a training track, and it adjoins the former stately home of Kenwood House and its estate.

… The West Heath is regarded as one of the safest night-time gay cruising grounds in London. George Michael revealed that he cruised on the heath, an activity he then parodied on the Extras Christmas Special.

The West Heath is indeed gay-famous, from well before George Michael gave it his parks and recreation seal of sexual approval.

Later, the two young men are (sometimes) presented as being lovers. And Spooner charges Hirst with having corrupted not only various women, but also a young man, in his early days.

3. Early on, the two main characters fall into a pattern of complementarity: one of them rambles on passionately while the other sits back silently, communicating mostly through facial expressions, and then they change places. The suggestion is that they are in fact two sides of a single person, that Spooner is literally Hirst’s alter ego, as Paul Taylor suggested.

4. The crucial quote, from Hirst, just before he collapses from drink in Act 1: “No man’s land … does not move … or change … or grow old … remains … forever … icy … silent”

5. From just a few sentences in, the play is about aging (and, consequently, the specter [BrE spectre] of death). Both of the main characters are grasping at what remains of their lives.

6. And, of course, everyone contends over what is real and what is dissembling. “Who are you?”

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