National Theatre, Lyttelton, Matinee. Directed by Pinter. Corin Redgrave as Hirst, John Wood as Spooner.
I had the great good luck to see the original Wyndham’s Theatre production of this play in 1976 with Richardson as Hirst and Gielgud as Spooner. The hardest of acts to follow, but Redgrave and Wood are, quite independent of their predecessors, their own men and completely convincing. They offer fascinating, broadly stated, telling performances. The play retains all of its mystery and obscurity, and all of its humor, along with the lucid language of a master craftsman at the top of his form. These actors and their two able accomplices, Danny Dyer as Foster and Andy de la Tour as Biggs, are capable of the no-holds-barred bravura style that Pinter implanted in the text and that, as director, he has encouraged Redgrave and Wood to emulate. A marathon drinking bout turns out to be a sustained struggle for power that ends in a kind of draw, with Spooner’s easy comment on such struggles as taking place in a no man’s land where shifting allegiances occur and take place without warning and where no one can feel secure.
The term is drawn, of course, from the experience of the Great War, where the territory between the two entrenched enemies was called a “no man’s land,” a land held and possessed by no one — or at least by no one for long. I think the term must have had wide currency in the Second War — a likelihood pointed to by Hirst’s question to Spooner after they both divulged that they had been in it: “Did you have a good war?”
Corin Redgrave is a remarkably handsome man, on whom no Bond Street apparel would be wasted. He acts — as an actor and as the character of Hirst — as if to the manor born. But he does not hold his liquor especially well, and we see him drink himself to the point of collapse, twice. The fall he takes, stage center, from a fully standing position, was every bit as good as Richardson’s (even if Richardson was taller) and yet all his own: he even falls in the full bravura style. He has a certain relaxed manner that speaks of generations of good breeding at only the best schools. For a good while we think that he is sure to best Spooner, a seedy ne’er-do-well of a failed poet reduced to clearing tables at a Chalk Farm pub; but Spooner turns out to be a match for him.
Wood’s ruddy-faced Spooner, despite his baggy, unkempt clothes and appearance, has linguistic gifts at least equal to his opponent’s. Clearly, Pinter wrote these two characters to be a match for one another, and implicit in this is the requirement for casting two actors of equal talent and self-sufficient style. Woods’s Spooner is sometimes momentarily at a loss, and we see his face light up and gleam with surprise. But the moment swiftly turns into his brilliant response; the resulting can-you-top-this? back-and-forth holds the audience in rapt silence for remarkably long stretches of time.
A sumptuous set, as grand as any posh upper-Hampstead Heath house might be, leaves plenty of space wide open for negotiating advantage, the only properties being two chairs — one the proprietor’s, the other clearly a visitor’s — set at a frankly frontal angle; only at either side is there a table, with telephone (used only once, I think) down left, and the massive cabinet for books and liquor along the right wall, a piece identified in Pinter’s directions as the principal item of the set. To be more exact, the proprietor’s chair, with a small side table to its right, is much closer to the right wall of the set than the smaller chair, which occupies a spot just left of center and hangs there, looking like the unprotected, temporary resting place that it is. This reflects Pinter’s well-known bias towards the specific and concrete, even while he is leading — no, pursuing would be the better word — his characters through the dense, treacherous landscape that is, in one form or another, interior as well as exterior, the invariable, fallen world of his plays.
Many critics love to call Pinter a poet of the theatre, calling attention to the meticulous precision of his dialogue, and stage directions too. This is all quite true, as is the “minimalism” associated with this chiseled, laconic way of writing from an early point. But there is another quality, or characteristic, of his poesis that’s important to add. In no other writer for the twentieth-century theatre, with the exception of Beckett, is there such a deep and constant — chronic, one might say — gap, a chasm, really, between what is said and what is meant. In fact, we should distinguish between the thing meant (the speaker’s, or the author’s, intention to convey thoughts or feelings), and the depths of human gesture that live and undulate incessantly at a profound distance from the surface. The more a character says, it seems, the less we are sure we know about him. As Pinter himself put it in an early comment on his work, “the more intense the emotion, the less articulate its expression.”