Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Pinter at his best with a dark and brilliant comedy

No Man’s Land, Gate Theatre, Dublin

Harold Pinter's iconic drama 'No Man's Land' has arrived at the Gate Theatre for a four-week run.

The play, directed impeccably by Richard Goold, tells the story of two aging writers who are united in their loneliness and need for friendship.

Spooner and Hirst meet on Hampstead Heath, which could be the 'No Man's Land' of the title. We are never sure, since the story teaches that all of us travel uncertainly in a 'No Man's Land' of our own.

They are two lonely men. Hirst is successful, lives in a fine house and has 'minders', in the form of Foster and Briggs.

Spooner, poorly dressed, has not been successful in the world's terms, but is a literary figure, editor of a poetry magazine -- a classic loss-maker, if ever the world made such a sure-fire emblem of failure -- and has a beautiful command of language.

It is not clear how this unlikely pair of men know each other. They could have been friends at Oxford. They seem to have shared women. Lyrical country episodes are recalled but not really shared.

Hirst brings Spooner back to his Hampstead house with its bar and its library, and that is where begins one of the funniest and most accomplished performances of a drunk, by Michael Gambon, that I have ever seen.

The slow, deliberate lifting of a finger or an eyebrow is an exquisite presentation of the actor's craft, leading to the character crashing about and exiting on all fours.

Harold Pinter's skill in creating floods of drama in one mood, represented in this relationship by the explorations of the past, and then cutting them dead and moving to another mood or atmosphere, is superbly represented by these two 'older generation' figures.

They are like demons from all of our pasts, moving from romance to sentiment, from poetry to harsh interrogation, then on to doubt and disdain.

Gambon is richly matched by the frantic determination of David Bradley as Spooner, trying to force a friendship that is not really there, and trying to do it with poetry and persuasion.

The part is wonderfully played by David Bradley. He is a classic Pinter survivor in his desperation to be accepted, eventually having to confront all three other men in the play's action.

The minders -- David Walliams, who plays Foster, and an inscrutable Nick Dunning as the granite-like manservant -- do not want Spooner in the house.

They are the new generation, their attitude pervaded by the threat that is a hallmark of Pinter's dramatic characterisations.

There are moments of intense feeling, nostalgia, romance; but the underlying and inbuilt failure to connect prevails, making this a dark and brilliant example of dramatic comedy in a richly realised setting.