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Pinter’s No Man’s Land has no female characters but, like the revival of Rattigan’s play, received rave reviews. This was in part because of the star cast which made it “event theatre”. But it was also, surely, because Pinter’s play, 40 years after the famous Gielgud/Richardson production, has lost none of its dramatic power. There is something fresh and alive about the movement between comedy and menace, between an uncertain present and a mysterious past, between Spooner’s garrulous mobility and Hirst’s stasis, between the intruder and the occupant. No Man’s Land reworks themes that had preoccupied Pinter since his first great works in the late 1950s. Benedict Nightingale once called Spooner “the opportunist with territorial ambitions, the intruder in the hunt for space to steal”, a better-educated version of Davies in The Caretaker.

No Man’s Land was never topical or political in the way Osborne’s acclaimed plays were. It did not feel, then or now, that it had caught the mood of the times. But that has made it all the more timeless. There is nothing in No Man’s Land that feels dated, stuck in a moment that has passed. There are no references that now feel clunky in the way Osborne’s references to Anthony Eden are today. Pinter’s play never feels anachronistic.

The louder Osborne’s characters shout, the less dramatic or moving they seem. However, what is so powerful in Rattigan and Pinter is the restraint, the mystery of human relationships and the relentless focus on the distance between people. Who are Foster and Briggs? Do Spooner and Hirst know each other from the past or have they just met? Do they know each other at all or is their relationship one of wary conflict? Reviewing the original production, Michael Billington wrote, “The play is a masterly summation of all the themes that have long obsessed Pinter: the fallibility of memory, the co-existence in one man of brute strength and sensitivity, the ultimate unknowability of women, the notion that all human contact is a battle between who and whom.”

What could be further removed from Osborne or the other so-called angry young men? Pinter comes from a very different strand of 1950s drama. At a recent celebration at the Royal Court of Arnold Wesker’s life and work, a director told the story of how Wesker was told to rewrite Roots. Who is going to watch a play where the main character never turns up, he was told. This was three years after Waiting for Godot.

It is easy to think of British post-war theatre as a battle between the Gentlemen and the Players, between plays with French windows and those with kitchen sinks. But this misses out modernism, the line from Beckett to Pinter. The set in No Man’s Land is “sparsely furnished” but there is “a wall of bookshelves”. Pinter once told the story of his first encounter with Beckett’s work. It was when he read Murphy: “I suddenly felt that what his writing was doing was walking through a mirror into the other side of the world which was, in fact, the real world.” A “real world” — but one with neither French windows nor kitchen sinks.

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