Harold Pinter and No Man’s Land

Why do theatre-goers flock to see plays by Harold Pinter? The question is prompted by a visit this week to Sheffield’s Lyceum for No Man’s Land. It was a sell-out and I was lucky to get a seat in the rear of the balcony. Pinter is elusive and one can feel an insecurity in the audience as they struggle to make sense of the piece; and sometimes snatches of conversation reach you, such as “what the hell was that about?” Yet it can be assumed that the majority have had some experience of Pinter before buying a ticket and therefore must have known what they were in for. Of course, as with the Sheffield performance, what primarily attracted them may have been the appearance of star actors, in this case, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. But I suspect that there is more to it than that.

Is it the comedy, for there is certainly much to laugh at in the text and stage business? On the other hand, some of the laughter tends to intervene at inappropriate moments (for example when, in the first half of No Man’s Land, one of the principal characters Hirst collapses) and then is almost certainly a reflection of audience insecurity whether a consequence of puzzlement or of anxiety. So comedy alone is an unlikely explanation. A few years ago, during the interval of a performance of The Caretaker at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre, I got into conversation with a chap who confessed that he found the play “difficult to understand” but that he was gripped by it. Let me speculate on an explanation for this. Pinter’s dialogue – sometimes poetic, sometimes coarse, but always idiomatic – has a resonance for us because, when combined with behaviour on the stage, sometimes banal, sometimes eccentric, it communicates to us the “reality” of an individual and of that individual’s predicament in its social context. And that context contains forces, often oppressive, which are deeply rooted in human beings but which are typically masked by conventional behaviour. In Pinter’s hands the revelation of all of this is made dramatically compelling by enabling the dark forces, at key moments, to break through the conventional dialogue and behaviour, so that we, the audience, can experience the totality of the “individual + predicament”, rather than simply the veneers. Add to that the tension created by the familiar features of Pinteresque theatre – silences, repetition, verbal rhythms – and you have great drama.