I have known this before. So says Spooner, the frayed poetical invited guest who remains on stage throughout Harold Pinter's play. And so have I. I'm lucky enough to have seen not only the 2001 National Theatre production with Corin Redgrave and John Wood, but the original 1975 one with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. My memories of the later production are, not suprisingly, more vivid, though I can still recall Gielgud fussing around in his sandals in the role of Spooner. This revival from the Gate theatre, Dublin is excellent too, thanks to Michael Gambon as Hirst and David Bradley as Spooner. Director Rupert Goold underplays the humour a bit; it's all very gloomy, even the bits where Pinter is having linguistic fun. Incidentally, this play contains what I think must be the first recorded use of the verb to google.
Gambon's performance in the first act is that of a man so befuddled by alcohol that he can barely stand; in act two he bounces back after a few hours sleep, his limbs newly flexible and his sense of balance restored. In his smart pinstriped suit he looks ready to chair a board meeting. But with one drink his newly acquired fluency and his flow of pre-war recollections dry up, and he is back in No Man's Land again. The title of the play is generally taken as referring to old age and the approach of death, though it seems to me to have more to do with the disintegration of memory. Gambon and Bradley are terrific, though I don't feel I can say the same about David Walliams and Nick Dunning as the two sidekicks Foster and Briggs. They didn't generate the same degree of menace as in the 2001 production andI felt Walliams' phrasing of Pinter's dialogue lacked spontaneity. What I missed was the sense of Hirst, Foster and Briggs coming together as a team or a family against the intruding Spooner. What I admired once again on leaving the Duke of York's theatre was the timelessness of Pinter's writing.