The star billing of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart is undoubtedly the draw for this revival of Harold Pinter’s 1974 play. Masterclass is the term the critics use, quite rightly, and fans of these greats won’t be disappointed. It’s encouraging to see followers of Star Trek and Tolkien take a trip to the theatre, and the crowd during my visit showed a degree of respect welcome in any audience. This is a strong production, and yet, while the devotees clearly had a good time seeing their idols, fans of Pinter may be less satisfied.
Director Sean Mathias has a keen eye for the entertainment value of this play – his strength is in his appreciation of Pinter’s humour. McKellen benefits most. As a down-at-heel, unsuccessful poet, yet “free man”, who unwittingly becomes the guest of a famous literary savant, he cuts a chipper figure and makes the dialogue light, with lots of laughs. Stewart’s role is more obviously subtle. Deadpan humour combines with poignancy in a character who lives in a privileged “world of silk” but is haunted by the past, losing his mind and waiting to die. Despite a few clichéd Pinter pauses, quiet, awkward moments are brief and it’s all surprisingly sprightly.
This is fast and funny Pinter and a pleasant take on the play. But a price has to be paid. As the encounter between these two men becomes more surreal, Stewart can convey tragedy but McKellen’s desperation isn’t convincing. Playing for laughs, the companions who look after Stewart’s character lack menace: Owen Teale and Damien Molony have presence but their roles become purposeless. Pinter’s sharp eye on class and its “quaint little perversions” become rather toothless and nostalgic. Matthias may intrigue newcomers to Pinter, and the performances make the production worth seeing, but this is a flat and disappointing version of a complex play.
Until 17 December 2016
Photos by Johan Persson