THEATRE: Pinter Festival; Venues around Dublin

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As Jack Foster says of the vastly successful writer, Hirst, in Harold Pinter's bleak 1975 play, No Man's Land (winding up Michael Colgan and the Gate's second Pinter festival this week), "It's another realm of operations, friend. Another class." And it must be a rum daydream to find oneself a living monolith of reverential scrutiny, as Pinter has again in recent weeks. Four plays, TV screenings and a season of crisp prints at the Irish Film Centre; even a symposium at the Beckett Centre in Trinity, with speakers gabbing on about Pinter-and-location (Austin Quigley, Peter Raby) or Pinter-in-Russia (Charles Evans). Michael Billington made a thoroughly enjoyable innings, identifying memory and time as central themes and pinning down key life experiences, distilled from his respectful but surprisingly close-up critical biography, published last year.

Mr P was notably absent from these biopsies, though he stiffly obliged with a reading of scenes from 1960s and 1970s work (Old Times, The Homecoming, Betrayal, The Caretaker, One for the Road), as though to define precise nuance and pace. Significantly, his reading was packed with young and oddly dressed people, utterly tuned into the more class-conscious equations of the early material.

Back at the Gate, the sets flowed perfectly into the deco-classical pillars and high Georgian windows of the theatre, where queues trailed before every performance. Reviewed ecstatically, Harold played Harry in The Collection, followed by his own recent production of Ashes to Ashes. You know the story. Large room. Two voluminous armchairs. A couple, sitting out the wintry weather. She (the wonderful Lindsay Duncan) retreating into a shadowland of distracted, eventually vicarious, shock-reminiscence. He (Stephen Rea) delicately interrogating her about the lover she has just announced. It left some Pinterbuffs cold, but I found it a beautifully spare dramatic tone-poem, although I was left scratching at the final intimation of a Holocaust: suggestive, then evasive, as though silenced by a subject it could not address.

A Kind of Alaska began with the icy horror of amnesia; a woman (Penelope Wilton's excellent flickering portrayal) wakes from a 29-year fugue into a room, and in the body of a woman in her mid-Forties. In classic, gripping Pinter style, a man greets her, announces himself as her sister's husband, and claims to have woken her up with an injection. Like a bad Freudian joke, it dissipated the masterful, fragmentary suspense.

No Man's Land - the only full-length show in the season - dispenses with ladies altogether in a seemingly broken-down dream-rearrangement of Pinter's old Hackney group of collegiate pals - all volatile male bonds and questions of loyalty and contested erotic memory. Niall Buggy plays the infuriatingly craven, crumpled poet-type, insinuating a niche for himself in the all- but-pickled brain of TP McKenna's upsetting Hirst. More pleasurable is the sinister old double-act of Nick Dunnings' statuesque, Cockney knucklehead, Jack Foster; and the more ambling menace of Tony Haygarth's Briggs, crimelord turned butler-amanuensis - B-movie stereotypes played in a Pinter-generic swirl of paranoia and see-sawing power-balances.

Pegged by Michael Billington as Pinter's most formally perfect play (he rates it higher than Beckett's Endgame), it is opened up by director Ben Barnes as a play of fabulous moments, and long, unnecessary conversational conceits. Some of the heightened freeze-framing deconstructs the atmosphere nicely, yet some of the comic underlining is naff, where dry insouciance would have pumped it home. Still, an existential chiller on mortality you'll not easily forget.

After a couple of weeks of hard-core immersion in the festival, life started to imitate Pinter. There are areas I will always find problematic: the phallocentric idealisation of the enigmatic Pinterwoman; and the obsession with infidelity at her hands. But I was curiously taken by the man himself, as much as his work: glinting in the light of indisputable Irish freedom, dignified, distant, a writer-solitary in the most garrulous of industries. Fixated, perhaps, on some distant Edenic youth, he still coughs up unsettling paradigms and, having outlived Osborne and even Potter in the flesh, his work will undoubtedly last even longer - it thoroughly deserves to. 'No Man's Land' runs until 3 May at the Gate, Dublin. Booking: 00353- 1-8744045 or 8746042 Mic Moroney

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