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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


  No Man's Land


By Harold Pinter (1974)

Directed by Martin Lindfield

Brighton Fringe: Brighton Little Theatre

Thereís a game you can play while watching Abigailís Party, and Withnail and I, in which you drink along with the characters and get steadily sozzled. Try that with No Manís Land and youíd finish up in A&E with a severe case of alcohol poisoning.

And Hirst and Spooner have been preloading, too, at Jack Strawís Castle, a famous old pub on Hampstead Heath now, sadly, converted into flats, along with so many others.

The pair met there, and Hirst (John Tolputt) has invited Spooner (John Hartnett) back to his house. We assume, at first, this is a homosexual pick-up, reinforced by Spoonerís confession that he frequents the heath and gets his voyeuristic pleasure hiding in bushes, discreetly turning away at the actual sex bit.

But this being a Pinter you should assume nothing. Sexualities are fluid, here, and strangely directionless. Or possibly directed everywhere.

ďAs it is?Ē the opening line which Pinter claimed triggered the following two hours of dialogue, is freighted with meaning beyond how one takes oneís whisky. Nothing is ever quite as it is.

Hirst says little else in the first act, allowing the drink to take its terrible toll on him as Spooner gabbles on about his peccadillos and his self-esteem. Itís Spooner whoís in control, it seems at this point, with some scheme in mind. Is he waiting his chance to roll the drunk?

Come the interval, though, Spooner is prisoner and cast and audience are plunged into sudden darkness.

And two more characters have emerged. Foster (Tobias Clay), who introduces himself as Hirstís son but probably isnít, and Briggs (Marc Valentine), who might be Fosterís lover, or possibly not.

They work for Hirst, who turns out to be a rich and famous literary man (while Spooner is a failed poet), as servants and protectors. Though itís more of a protection racket. In a typical Pinter reversal they act the true masters, ruling and regulating Hirst and his guest.

Physical force lurks behind the lines as the final arbiter of who has the upper hand, and that belongs to Foster and Briggs, the young and the strong. Hirst and Spooner are getting old, especially Hirst. If No Manís Land is about anything itís about his descent.

At the start his silence embodies a control (Tolputt seems to do it, somehow, all with his lips) that slips away with the alcohol as he slides onto the floor. When he briefly recovers he is garrulous, confused and brightly lucid in one. Itís revealed that he and Spooner share a past, but not the one he thinks it is.

Hirst stumbles on into a no manís land, his purpose lost, his identity fractured.

He is losing a power game played in language, words that are twisted from meaning to meaning until Hirst declares heís ďchanging the subject for the last timeĒ. There is nowhere else to go. No more sides to take in this war of words. The play, and perhaps Hirstís life, must end, and we are left stranded, frozen between the lines.

May 21, 2012

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