AGE, MEMORY, WHISKY AND DEATH… DRINK TO THAT
“But you see, its ABOUT being rather bored and baffled. Thats the POINT” said a pleading voice in the interval scuffle. She wasn’t entirely offbeam: Pinter is not everybody’s cup of bitter, clouded tea. But boring it could not be, this revival of one if his best plays from the turbulent 1970’s: a time perhaps of even more than usual dissatisfaction and upheaval for this most angrily morose of playwrights.
Not boring, because it is a piece requiring – and getting – two superlative, ageing, unshakeably confident and dryly perceptive actors to make sense of the principals. We have the dapper Hirst in a Hampstead drawing -room framed in flickering heathland leaves, and Spooner, a random, rumpled , camply garrulous old stranger (or is he?) who he has asked in for a drink. Famously they were Ralph Richardson and Gielgud when it was first played at the NT and Wyndham’s: now, matching them absolutely in quality ( so Benedict Nightingale says and I always believe him) it is Ian mcKellen and Patrick Stewart, theatrical knights of our own century.
They put not a foot wrong, and in the case of McKellen’s long opening rambles about his poetry, his averred strength (“because I was never loved”) , and how he never stays long with others “they do not wish it”, his feet are vital. Insinuating but vulnerable he sashays, weaves and writhes his sinuous form around he room inside those most distressful suitings, one stained old trouser-leg tucked into his sock, as if the trousers perhaps came off earlier in his heathland wanderings. Despite his protestations at being too old even to “peep”at such things. Stewart is more solid, at first dropping only immaculately timed responses (After some useless personal probing of his host Spooner protests “I have gone too far”, to which Hirst “I expect you to go a great deal farther”. The pair ricochet off one another’s damaged, depressed, very masculine carapaces with remarkable virtuosity. And it’s a joy to watch.
Pinter, however, rarely can resist larding his airy Hampstead neuroses with bullyboys, menaces, leatherjacketed thugs from some feared, incomprehended, but fascinating underclass of his imagination. The servants of Hirst – rough Owen Teale and camply swaggering Damien Molony – .preen, menace and curse their way to no particular effect during the end of Act 1: although the despairing helplessness of McKellen around them is superb, Hirst having crawled off drunk. The play for me dips drearily here, probably provoking that interval remark nearby.
But fear not. The second act, still as odd and deliberately dislocating, is studded with comedy gold: notably the pastiche-bufferdom of the morning after as the two old men appear to know who each other are (or not) reminisce about possibly fictitious old pals and affairs .“I would be taking nothing of yours” avers Stewart amiably, of some old adultery “only that portion of herself all women keep for a rainy day”. Typical, that.. And with the return of the menacing servants they move into a final poignancy of decline -but a decline you can “drink to”, a no-man’s land of hope so long lost that it doesn’t matter. An an astonishing long riff of pleading from McKellen ushers us into the final twilight.
And it does in the end mean something profound and not at all dull, about age and memory and approaching death . Goodness knows, Pinter takes an idiosyncratic route to get us there, but there are lines that burn into your head. Pinterite or not, it’s something to see: the quintessence of acting, a poem about life.
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