THEATRE / Another side of Harold Pinter

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NO PARTNERSHIP is more firmly printed on theatrical memory than Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud's in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land in 1975. Hirst, the rich and successful writer, Spooner, the poetic down-and- out; the Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle of the Hampstead literary scene. I thought Richardson and Gielgud had defined that relationship once and for all, but David Leveaux's production (transferred from the Almeida) pushes it on another notch - to a point where the opponents rebound from their separate corners to change places.

Nothing could be more abject than the first sight of Paul Eddington's Spooner, passing obsequious compliments on the 'remarkably pleasant room' (Bob Crowley's blank monochrome vault), and scurrying round to the drinks trolley at his host's lordly invitation. Nothing, that is, except the later sight of Hirst (Pinter himself) standing with bowed head, power visibly draining out of him, as his servant-gaolers withhold him from the bottle. Pinter is not the great actor Richardson was, but he knows more about Hirst. He arrives giving the usual impression of a short-fused bank manager but, unlike Richardson, who could never surrender his invincible stage authority, Pinter sheds status and discloses an inner landscape as desolate as his partner's everyday life.

No theory will exhaust this play's possibilities; but here it comes over as a drama of the alternative fates of a single man - two diverging roads: one leading to poverty and failure, but preserving a margin of hope; the other leading to fame and security, but at the price of creative impotence and imprisonment. And when their routes finally converge, each recognises the other as what, but for a stroke of good or bad luck, he might have been.

Where do they meet? Joining the queue of those who have tried to crack the cryptic title, I suggest the dramatic equivalent of a neurological synapse: a no-man's- land between two cells where information can pass without the restrictions that operate inside the cellular system. Past and present are obliterated, and any thought can freely bubble to the surface. This at least relates to the play's ambiguous handling of time. We think of Pinter as a memory playwright. But as Hirst and Spooner discuss the past, parodying the idioms of London clubland, pastoral wedlock, and old comrades' reunion, they could equally be a couple of boys fantasising over their future.

Such are the ideas aroused by this marvellous partnership. In point of detailed comic portraiture, it is Eddington's show - a destitute lion, pitching for high status at the first chance, and hugging himself with wicked glee when he turns the tables on his opponent. You know exactly what kind of poetry he is peddling down at the Bull's Head. But it is thanks to Pinter's stonily disintegrating Hirst that he achieves his effects. Plays of this quality are no longer being written; but actors can still make them seem new.

It was my achievement in 1955 to review J R Ackerley's The Prisoners of War without noticing that it was about homosexuality. In Ken Butler's excellent revival, the subject cuts through the claustrophobic setting (an edgy group of English PoWs interned in a Swiss hotel) like the scream of a drowning man. The straight roles are deftly characterised within the strangulated officer-caste idiom; especially the heartless boyfriend, whom Neil Roberts plays as a nave juvenile who doesn't see the pain he is inflicting. Ashley Russell plays the sexual outsider on a curve of mounting hysteria; but, in the light of Ackerley's own future life, what hurts most is his final retreat from human contact into hugging a potted plant.

Better that group, with all their moral hang-ups, than the Texas trio in Naomi Wallace's The War Boys who spend their nights hunting illegal immigrants on the Mexican border, and passing the time between sightings by masturbating to the Oath of Allegiance. Their leader (Ethan Flower) is a young lawyer who exercises a cynically sadistic hold over his working-class cronies, one of whom (Bradley Lavelle) happens to be half-chicano - a device which allows the author to fight out the racial tensions inside the group without bringing on any fleeing Mexicans. When the confessions come pouring out, they all turn on brutality to women. This limits the play's focus, but not its ferocious portrait of American male tribal customs. 'Made in the USA,' says Lavelle, reading the trademark on his leader's gun: 'you can have it back.'

In Hisashi Inoue's Greasepaint two fine artists, Frances de la Tour and the director Koichi Kimura, combine in an attempt to introduce Japanese popular theatre (Taishu) to the British spectator. De la Tour holds the stage alone for 90 minutes as an actress-manager rehearsing a show about a long-lost mother while personally being reunited with her long-lost son, in a theatre that is about to go under the bulldozers. The task is clearly hopeless, and the production leaves you uncertain of where the stage is supposed to be, and of whether the whole thing is happening in the unhappy artist's head. De la Tour executes a riveting make-up in front of an imaginary mirror and performs some exquisite pantomime routines. She does not succeed in peopling the stage with unseen characters; and her ricocheting transitions from flowery Japanese dramatic speech to Cockney stage reality blow the cultural bridges sky-high. And where, I should like to know, are the 'ubiquitous cauldrons of steaming stew' said to be an essential of Taishu performances?

The role of Ella in the Leeds production of All God's Chillun Got Wings is played by Geraldine Alexander, and not Sharon Henry, as I said last week. My apologies to both players.

'No Man's Land': Comedy (071-930 2578). 'Prisoners': New End (071- 794 0022). 'War Boys': Finborough (071-373 3842). 'Greasepaint': Lyric Hammersmith (081-741 2311).