January 3 1976:  Pinter, No Man’s Land

Wyndham’s Theatre, matinee (5:00 pm). Directed by Peter Hall       

The National Theatre production. Two old men, Spooner (John Gielgud) and Hirst (Ralph Richardson), fellow univ­er­sity grad­uates, run into each other at Jack Straw’s, the pub at the top of Hamp­stead Heath. Spooner, a down-at-heels poet, accom­panies Hirst, a suc­cessful and famous essayist, critic, and poet, back to Hirst’s luxurious Hampstead house. There, in the imposing drawing room, in a night session (Act I) and a morning session (Act II) the past is re-opened, identities are disclosed, the terms of battle defined, and the war dec­lared. Inevitably, the battle takes place in territory up for dispute, a kind of no man’s land.

The issue is, who will gain power, gain control — here, control over the life, or what’s left of it, of Hirst, who drinks himself unconscious in the first act and repeatedly approaches the threshold of impropriety, though all the while exhib­iting a vigorous presence such as only Richardson can portray. The contestants are Spooner, the interloper from the past, a seedy-elegant seizer of the main chance, and two young men of shadowy identity who seem to be hired body­guards doubling, somewhat ineptly, as housekeeper and cook for Hirst, whose person becomes effectively the no man’s land of the title. They are extremely possessive of him, regarding him as somehow theirs, and consequently extremely resentful of Spooner’s efforts to worm his way in. It is all visited with that vague air of  menace that Pinter can generate so master­fully. The ending, in which Gielgud’s Spooner has a long speech, almost declamatory, elucidates the nature of the contest, describing the battle­ground as a sort of “no man’s land” and serving to bring the play to a stop. — Not an end, exactly, but a moment’s pause, a deep breath, before the inevitable fray.

The familiar Pinteresque long prose tale is here, of course: the story told by a character, often a propos of nothing in partic­ular, a straightforward commonplace event that ends up as a little genre piece about violence (psychological or physical) and domin­ance (imagined or real). To this sort of set speech Pinter has added another kind less easy to define — a sort of self-exposition that tells “who I am” without really giving away “what I am,” what the character’s motives are. That is, it’s another technique based on Pinter’s observ­ations of people asserting themselves by seemingly being open, condescending, careless, even downright friendly, but always playing from some reserve of hid­den strength — or anxiety.

Gielgud is supremely good, a joy to watch, having learned as a baby how to mark each word or phrase for just the maximum meaning and effect without ever slipping into a “marked for notice” mode. An almost perfect match of actor and role, despite the odds against thinking of Gielgud as right for Pinter or vice versa. Did Pinter write the role of Spooner for Gielgud? Very possibly.  Richardson in his own way is the right match for Gielgud. Could it be that Pinter’s idea for this play came from seeing Richardson and Gielgud playing opposite one another in Richard Storey’s Home (which I unfortunately failed to see)? What a wonderful contrast! Each actor measures everything to the last fraction of an inch, yet the two have utterly different styles. Possibly it is that Richardson’s “units” of playing are larger than Gielgud’s, so that the character comes across as more broadly played. Yet this broadness is appropriate to the style of life of Richard­son’s character, a successful man of wealth, status, priv­ilege — yet of no ultimate power.

There are some unique Richardsonian touches, as in his method of pouring himself drink after drink: the glass held with great impatience in the left hand, the bottle in the right, tilted precipitously over the glass, so that its contents rush out almost in globbets rather than a continuous steady stream, while Richard­son’s head nods quickly — almost a tremor — in time to the rush of the rum, as if he was counting, while at the same time the tremor-like movement suggests physical decline, loss of motor ability. He falls down repeatedly in the course of the play and has to be picked up and helped back to his chair at the center of this oval room, usually by Foster or Briggs, the hired help, or by Spooner, who once insists that only he can do it properly, since only he understands the failings of age. The first time, however, Richardson’s Hirst collects himself sufficiently to crawl out of the room, with slow deliber­ation, on his hands and knees, like some ancient, senile lion.

There is much humor in this play, as there is in most of Pinter when prop­er­ly played. The setting is a sumptuous affair of huge bay windows delimiting most of the room in a great ellipse, with cream-colored curtains and drapes and a plush green rug stopping several feet short of the walls, the intervening space given over to expensive, golden tan floor tilings. The tiles are also laid along the proscenium line, with a semicircular indentation at the center. The effect is a sort of circular boxes-within-boxes effect, serving to accentuate the center of the stage, where Hirst sits with failing authority in an overstuffed chair. Above it a giant table devoted entirely to liquor and the amenities of a bar; a double door down right, shelves for knickknacks, and record player down left complete the scene and establish an ambivalent sense of the spacious and the closed-in that suits the play — and realizes the contested space identified in the title.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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