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A CurtainUp London Review

No Man's Land
By Lizzie Loveridge
I can sum up none of my plays. I can describe none of them, except to say: That is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.  
--- Harold Pinter, 1971

No Man's Land
John Wood as Spooner
Corin Redgrave as Hirst
(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)
When Peter Hall's production of No Man's Land premiered at the National Theatre in 1975, it starred John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, both theatrical knights of the British theatre. It was the first modern play for one of them and was a tremendous hit. Since then it has been the least revived of Pinter's plays. Why? Certainly the success of the first production made it daunting for those who wanted to revive it, but also because the play itself is obscure and difficult for the audience with its emphasis on the use of language out of context, and role play. Since then, Pinter himself directed it at the Almeida in 1993, as he does in this revival at the National's proscenium theatre, the Lyttelton. They are not Gielgud and Richardson but two heavyweight actors, Corin Redgrave and John Wood come to the main parts of the successful author and the "down at heel poet".

Had I not known it was written by Pinter, I would have thought that The Caretaker was being plagiarised, but as it is written by Pinter, I shall make appropriate noises about hearing echoes of The Caretaker. The setting is altogether different however from the 1950s dilapidated apartment of The Caretaker. Over two decades later, reflecting the upward mobility of Pinter's own life, we are not now in Shepherd's Bush but fashionable Hampstead. Here in a large mansion, lives novelist, Hirst (Corin Redgrave) who has come back from a Hampstead public house, having just met Spooner (John Wood). Over a few drinks, the shabbily dressed Spooner tries to impress Hirst with tales of his involvement in the world of poetry.

Spooner is that kind of irritating bore who has been everywhere before, done everything before, the kind of man who can "top" every one of your amusing stories. As the alcohol makes Spooner more garrulous, Hirst becomes more reticent. Hirst collapses, crawls off to bed, literally, and is replaced by a young man, Foster (Danny Dyer) and his companion, Briggs (Andy de la Tour). This rather sinister and street wise pair expose Spooner as a potman (busboy) at a Chalk Farm public house and taunt him with threats of violence.

In the second act, set the next morning, "the beggars can be choosers" joke from The Caretaker is replayed as Spooner checks on the vintage of his champagne breakfast. Hirst enters, has no recollection of who Spooner is and seems to mistake him for Charles, a friend from his youth. In a reversal of the first scene, Hirst recalls in great detail a sexual affair with the wife of whoever he thinks Spooner is (Charles). Spooner takes up the role play and invents himself as the friend of an aggrieved husband, cuckolded by Hirst. Foster and Briggs play out scenes with violence very near the surface, as if they are in a brawl in a public house.

Like all Pinter plays, there is power play and power shifts between the characters and menace in the juxtaposition of talk about violence and the sinister use of inappropriate and delicate language. We have Foster saying, in a Cockney accent, "It's a world of silk, of organdie, of flower arrangements and eighteenth century cookbooks." The effect is to disconcert us, the audience, with language which has the effect of seeming surreal or dreamlike or to make us laugh. In No Man's Land the detailed description of how to get through the one way system into fabled Bolsover Street is a delightful escape into the absurd. The humour i ranges from the straightforward quip, "Lord Lancer", "Are you one of the Bengal Lancers?" to Pinter's elaborate and elegant linguistic riffs.

Of the performances, I suspect carefully cast by the author and director, John Wood is perfect as the pompous fraud of a poet. Sometimes Spooner is momentarily out of his depth but mostly he uses his silvered tongue to weasel out of situations. His dichotomy is to be caught up in this bizarre household, not sure whether he has fallen on his feet in finding a place to live with social status, free food, free alcohol and a manservant, or whether he is going to be a victim of Foster and Briggs. "I have known this before. The door unlocked. The entrance of a stranger. The offer of alms. The shark in the harbour." Wood captures both Spooner's uncertainty and his confidence as his spun yarn takes hold.

Redgrave has the more difficult task. He performs "the bore" well, the vodka and whisky toting middle aged man who throws back his drinks, but the romantic, nostalgic and lyrical lover seems to partially elude him. Danny Dyer, young, clan from head to toe in denim is superb as the fast talking "youff". Andy de la Tour, whose large bald head bears a passing resemblance to that Homer Simpson, switches convincingly between deferential servant and malevolent architect.

It is the most dingy of sets, brown everywhere, twin urns the sole ornaments on the mantelpiece over the fire. Although a large sitting room, it has only two single chairs in the whole room. Bookcases and the liquor selection dominate. It is the room of a very unimaginative and unstylish man. Pinter's reputation as a stickler for the detailed observance of his stage directions, words and pauses will presumably, on this occasion be met.

No Man's Land is a play that is enjoyed by academics. I can see that studying it would be of interest because of its ambiguity and the opportunity that provides for philosophical discussion, although for me, it does not have the impact of some of his more performed works. Pinter is now on the English Literature examination syllabus for examination for 16 -18 year olds and this play is due to tour the country after its present run at the Lyttelton.

Ashes to Ashes
Lincoln Center Pinter Festival--Summer 2001)
Betrayal (Berkshires)
Betrayal (Broadway)
Celebration and The Room

No Man's Land
Written and directed by Harold Pinter

Starring: John Wood and Corin Redgrave
With: Danny Dyer and Andy de la Tour
Set Design: Eileen Diss
Costume Design: Danny Everett
Lighting Design: Mick Hughes
Sound: Gregory Clark
Running time: Two hours with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking some dates to 9th March 2002, also Newcastle and Oxford dates in February.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on the 6th December 2001 performance at the Lyttelton Theatre, Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1
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