Captain Moonlight: A touch of old moonshine taints the return of a master

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ON THURSDAY evening there was only one place for the Captain to be: at the West End opening of Moonlight, Harold Pinter's new play, the one that divided le tout Londres during its run at the Almeida. The sensitive have hailed it as a triumph, the return of the master to his finest form. The less sensitive have called it a load of impenetrable old claptrap; moonlight, moonshine. Not to have an opinion is to be mute at the table, silent in the salon.

Where stands the Captain? Well, it's not Rookery Nook, that's for sure. The stage and action are divided into three. In one part, Andy (Ian Holm) lies apparently dying, his wife Bel (Anna Massey) sits sewing. In another are two young men, apparently the couple's estranged sons, one in bed, one not. Above them a young girl wanders and wonders, apparently their lost daughter. The parents bicker, Holm rails, Massey withers. The sons banter and play role games, Pinter out of Python out of Pinter.

Pinter's ear is as acute as ever, as is his sense of the absurd. He would have made a wonderful writer for Morecambe and Wise. He is moving on death and regret. Where the Captain got a bit lost was in the crucial scene.

Massey rings the sons to get them to their father's deathbed. The son who answers says 'Chinese laundry' and passes the phone to his brother, who says 'Chinese laundry'. Massey then asks 'Do you do dry- cleaning?' The son replies: 'Of course we do dry-cleaning. What kind of a fucking laundry are you if you don't do dry- cleaning?' The phone goes dead. Dad dies. Daughter already dead, I think.

'I thought it was very good,' said Janet, sitting next to the Captain. 'I'm not sure what it was all about, but I'm going home to think about it.' Julian and Susannah, in front, were in 'total confusion'. They thought it was like somebody trying to make mock of a Pinter play. 'The guy may be saying some great ideas, but if he can't communicate them, I'm sorry.'

Terence, who had understudied in Pinter plays, thought it a 'masterwork' which worked in the way a poem worked, went on growing. It was about alienation, as expressed 'by the central drama of what happened to his daughter, which we don't know about'. 'Short, poetic, brilliantly acted,' said Jeremy, a marvellously smug critic from the Times. Had he understood it? 'In what sense? Not fully. It's a kind of osmosis. It seeps through.'

At the party, the producer, Bill Kenwright, who used to be Gordon Clegg on Coronation Street, said it was like looking at football or a Picasso: 'I know it's great, but I don't know why.' And, he added, 'I've produced enough crap to know the difference.'

Michael Sheen, who plays one of the sons, said it was important to react to it emotionally rather than intellectually. 'When people say it's a very strange play, I think 'life is strange'.' The dry-cleaning, he thought, was the mother asking for her sins against her sons to be washed clean.

'Good actors,' said Ian Holm, 'don't know what they're doing half the time: that's what I love about it.'

It was time to approach the playwright. Cautiously. He was sitting with Lady Antonia. 'I am a very happy author,' he said. 'I don't have any great illuminations to offer,' he said. What if I hadn't fully understood it? 'I have absolutely nothing to say about your sensibility, your intelligence, or your experience. That's for you to pursue yourself.' What audience was he writing for? 'I've always written absolutely for myself. I've never written for anybody else. I trust that I have a fundamental (enough) understanding of stagecraft to make the visit an interesting experience for intelligent members of the audience.' He had no more to say. I left. And forgot. To see if the moon was shining.

(Photograph omitted)