England's Most Enigmatic Modern Playwright Takes New York

By Hoggart, Paul | Newsweek, January 17, 2014 | Go to article overview

England's Most Enigmatic Modern Playwright Takes New York


Hoggart, Paul, Newsweek


Byline: Paul Hoggart

It sounds like one of those superhero films where Spider-Man and the Mighty Thor join forces with Iron Man and Captain America to save the world.

In this case Gandalf, the wizard of The Lord of the Rings, and Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation, who also go into battle in X-Men, have teamed up with secret agent James Bond in a mission to penetrate an alien citadel.

Or, to put it another way, venerable Shakespearean actors Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf/Professor X) and Sir Patrick Stewart (Picard/Magneto) have been executing a pincer movement with action hero Daniel Craig (007), to assault the theater audiences of New York with the work of England's most enigmatic modern playwright.

An already risky venture for these stars of blockbusting screen franchises can't have been made easier by the fact that the playwright in question, the late Harold Pinter, was a famously outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy and Great Britain's role in supporting it.

After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Stewart starred in a Broadway production of Pinter's The Caretaker. "When we opened a very good production," Stewart recalls, "we invited Harold to come and see it and he sent us a letter explaining that due to the present U.S. administration and its policies, for him to set foot on American soil would be a tacit approval of American foreign policy."

In his 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature lecture, Pinter described the United States as responsible for "systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless" crimes against humanity.

Despite all this, Pinter's Betrayal at New York's Barrymore Theater, a dissection of an adulterous affair starring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weiss, sold out as soon as the tickets went on sale and remained a sellout until the end of its run.

Betrayal may have an unusual back-to-front narrative structure, but it is among Pinter's more accessible works. No Man's Land, which appears at the Cort Theater in rotation with Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, both starring McKellen and Stewart, is a different kettle of fish altogether. It was described by the legendary London theater critic Kenneth Tynan as "gratuitously obscure," while the mischievous Pinter once told another critic he didn't understand it himself.

The 1975 opening of No Man's Land coincided with Pinter's love affair with the historical biographer Lady Antonia Fraser, recalled in her memoir Must You Go?: My Life With Harold Pinter. On the first night she writes that the London Evening Standard critic, after admitting he had fallen asleep during the performance, was so baffled he asked her if she could explain what the play meant.

She ventured an interpretation then, but tells me now, "I never comment on the meaning of Harold's plays. Didn't he once say: 'It means whatever you think it means'? Spoken lightly or not, it has always struck me as a pretty good answer."

Yet Broadway audiences, it seems, have been lapping it up. "I have never before heard American audiences respond to any production of Pinter or Beckett with such warm and embracing laughter," wrote critic Ben Brantley in The New York Times. "This isn't just a matter of theatergoers chuckling to show that they are smart and cultured," he added. "The audience is truly in on the joke."

So what is No Man's Land about? And what exactly is "the joke" that New York audiences are now in on? The play takes place in the drawing room of a large house in Hampstead, a leafy north London suburb, and a famous haunt of liberal intellectuals. Hirst (Stewart), an aging, but once successful writer, arrives home with another elderly man called Spooner (McKellen), who claims to be a poet.

Hirst in particular consumes spectacular quantities of whiskey, while they appear to trade reflections on life. Yet it is unclear if they know each other or have just met by chance, or if anything either of them says bears any relation to real events. …

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