Saturday, December 27, 2008

Two men in a room

Harold Pinter, who died this Christmas, had been making us smile, and laugh, and wince, and think with his plays for 50 years. It occurred to me as I thought about the Pinter plays I’d seen over the years that their famously enigmatic scenes often took place in very realistic, tangible settings. At Pinter plays we peer through theatre’s notorious fourth wall at rooms, especially London rooms, lower and middle class. They seem like real rooms in real buildings and we could be at a kitchen-sink drama or a well-made play by Shaw. But what happens on stage is a world away from such certainties.

My most vivid Pinterian memory is of the first production of No Man’s Land, much of which consists of two men (sometimes with two others) conversing in a room. The two men, in that memorable National Theatre production, were played by Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud.

The set of No Man’s Land is a room in a house in Hampstead. It’s simple but well furnished: big curtains at a window; a wall of books; an expensive-looking armchair; a large, marble-topped cabinet covered with bottles of every drink you could imagine, and more. It’s solid, reassuring, the room of Hirst (the Richardson character) a literary man with a taste for the booze. The two characters are anchored to this room (at one point Spooner, the John Gielgud character, is even locked in it) for the whole play. It seems a place of certainties and solidities.

This being Pinter, it’s anything but. The relationship between the two men is far from clear – sometimes they seem just to have met for the first time; at others they appear to have known each other for years. Hirst seems to be offering Spooner hospitality, but is also dominating him. Spooner is trying to manipulate Hirst for his own advantage, but in an oblique, sometimes ham-fisted way; he is a literary man, but has also been spotted working in a pub. Even their names are uncertain – Spooner is sometimes called Weatherby. The other pair are ambiguous too – they seem to be the minders and servants of Hirst, but at one point seem to control him. And so it goes on, with the main pair talking, reminiscing, and drinking, their memories meeting and colliding and parting company again and again so we don’t know where we are – except in this very solid Hampstead room.

It’s like life, of course, for how can we know others and how can we defeat memory’s tricks? But Pinter would have scorned such trite summings-up. He did not want to paraphrase his creations: it was enough for him to create situations and breathe life into them. A life that gives us the essence of theatre: two men talking in a room.

1 comment:

Peter Ashley said...

My Pinter image is of him lolling in the de rigeur canvas chair on the set of Joseph Losey's 'The Go Between', for which he had provided one of the best screenplays I've ever seen transalated into film.