MOURNING HAROLD PINTER

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Kunal Dutta attends a London production of "No Man’s Land" the day after the playwright's death. "We searched the stage for new meaning", he writes. "Does the death of the author, as Roland Barthes once argued, really change anything about the work?" ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

When Harold Pinter passed away on Christmas Eve, I was not the only one caught off guard. The programme notes for "No Man's Land", a play of his being performed in London, referred to him in the present tense the following day. “Writer: Born 10 October 1930 in East London. He is married to Lady Antonia Fraser.” It was not meant to be a posthumous production.

My motives for booking tickets to "No Man’s Land" on Boxing Day were not intentionally prophetic. I had simply hoped for some distraction to take the edge off a post-Christmas comedown. But the timing of Pinter's lost battle with cancer imbued the performance--the very first since--with poignant significance. We wondered how the play would feel--different? Changed? We searched the stage for new meaning. Does the death of the author, as Roland Barthes once argued, really change anything about the work?

Approaching the Duke of York Theatre, the scenes resembled another winter night in credit crunched London. Modest clusters of people gathered in the doorway. A few lonesome black cabs paused outside.

Inside the atmosphere was one of mute expectation. But far from a sold out show, the upper two tiers of the auditorium had been closed off, forcing a greater intimacy on the lower levels. Word had not yet fully spread of Pinter's death. The couple sitting next to me knew a great deal about Michael Gambon, the play's lead actor, but somehow missed the fact that Britain had lost of one its top playwrights. “To be honest I was probably too drunk or stuffed with turkey to have read about it,” the chap explained.

When this particular production of "No Man’s Land" debuted in London in October, some critics pounced. The Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts asked if the performance had been purposely revived “in the expectation that Mr Pinter would by now no longer be with us and, therefore, could be presented as a posthumous tribute”. The fact that the playwright then was still alive, he added, had “spared the requirement to be complimentary about this two-hour stinker simply for form's sake.”

But anyone familiar with Pinter knows that he would never resort to didactic self-explanation in his work. “A play is not an essay, nor should a playwright be under any exhortation to damage the consistency of his characters by injecting a remedy or apology for their decisions,” Pinter said in 1962. “To supply an explicit moral tag to an evolving and compulsive dramatic image seems to be facile, impertinent and dishonest.”

Written in 1974, "No Man’s Land" takes place over the course of a single night. A failed poet named Spooner (played by David Bradley) is invited back to the decadent house of Hirst (Gambon), an upper-class litterateur. The two sip scotch into the early hours. Despite promises to not out-stay his welcome, Spooner is so charmed his host’s hospitality that he hardly objects when he finds himself locked in overnight “on doctor’s orders”.

No Mans LandThere is a magnetic force between the two men. For a moment it looks as though something soulful might transcend their divisions of class and accomplishments. But the dynamic is more complicated than that. Not only is the evening littered with moments when Hirst blatantly outwits Spooner, but Hirst's thuggish servants, Briggs (Nick Dunning) and Foster (David Walliams), decide to meddle with the scene. They cunningly work to undermine Spooner, whom they view as a threat, quietly stripping the guest of his authority and ultimately rendering him useless.

It is a play peppered with Pinter’s hallmarks: black humour rooted in menace, and silences that speak volumes. Watching Spooner's constant, slippery transformations, shifting from long-suffering failure to silent observer, gregarious pontificator and imaginary old friend from Oxford, is to behold another signature Pinter move; just like with Stanley’s fading sanity in "The Birthday Party", the playwright projects characters in decay by revealing the fragility of their identity.

By the interval, we all wondered whether the theatre would do anything to mark Pinter's death. But this seemed to miss the point. The play itself was already tribute enough for a man who spent his life questioning the value of language and its ability to communicate the depth of human experience. As one audience member put it to me: “It is Pinter for God's sake. There is no more fitting end than one, long, extended silence.”

But there was plenty that felt timely, not least the haunting final scene, which sees Spooner, after a fruitless appeal to become Hirst’s secretary, finally assert that all four men were marooned "in no man's land. Which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever icy and silent." This was a play capable of occupying Barthes authorless space, while projecting all the muddled ambiguities that Pinter had become famous for.

Still, this was a rare moment when the unspoken would not quite be enough. As the house lights went up, the four actors remained on stage. One recited Pinter's final instruction to him ahead of this production: “keep it light, keep it quick and don’t forget the laughs.”

With his hands trembling as he read from a script, Mr Gambon repeated the lines from the play that Pinter had asked to be recited at his funeral. "I might even show you my photograph album. You might even see a face in it which might remind you of your own, of what you once were. You might see faces of others…whom you once knew, whom you thought long dead, but from whom you will still receive a sidelong glance.” After thunderous applause, some filed out in silence, while others were moved to tears. The play made for a moving default eulogy.

Picture credit: Jeremy Whelehan

(Kunal Dutta is a journalist based in London. His last story for More Intelligent Life was about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.)