No Man's Land, National Theatre, London

Pinter's masterly mix of hilarity and heartbreak
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The Independent Culture

In his recently published Diaries, the critic Kenneth Tynan makes several waspish remarks about Harold Pinter's 1975 play No Man's Land, summarising it in terms he intends to be withering: "A rich middle-class writer has a wary confrontation with a poor middle-class writer".

He adds some disparaging comments about the use of the National Theatre as a subsidised launch-pad for the piece. Now 25 years after its first appeared at the Lyttelton, the play returns to the same venue in a new staging by the author himself.

God knows, there are few points of similarity between myself and Tynan. But one thing is that I share with that critical luminary is a bit of a Pinter Problem. But faced with Pinter's brilliant production of No Man's Land, a masterly mix of the hilarious and the harrowing, I am happy to report that that problem dissolves into thin air.

This play might seem to have a shape roughly akin to that of the earlier Caretaker: a stranger, invited into a living space, opportunistically tries to settle himself there on a permanent basis but is stymied by the powers of the status quo ante.

But Pinter's staging of the piece brings home with the force of a revelation how much more subjective and dreamlike this later play is.

We could be inside the skull of the central character. Corin Redgrave's tragic and funny Hirst, a moneyed man of letters with a militaristic bearing, is clearly a desperate alcoholic who, in the first scene, is so incapacitated he has to struggle to converse with John Wood's gloriously seedy and Prufrockian Spooner, the failed poet he has picked up in a pub.

In a manner that is at times richly absurd and at times heartbreaking, Spooner here feels like the self Hirst might have been, had he not risen to his soulless mausoleum of eminence. It's as if, on the verge of complete crack-up and death, Hirst is offered an ambiguous helping hand by an outrageously on-the-make and unflattering but also mysteriously understanding alter ego.

Every aspect of the production has that sharpness you get in lucid, horribly playful nightmares – from the set that gives Hirst's classy home the impersonal look of a hotel suite to Danny Dyer's intimidating minder, Foster.

Redgrave and Wood make a great comic double-act, especially when Redgrave's Hirst bounds in the next morning and regales his baffled guest with stories of how he once cuckolded Spooner. Even more impressive are the aching, fleeting hints they give of Gloucester and King Lear. Unforgettable.