The torrents of praise heaped upon this magnificent production both when it opened at the Almeida last November and on its current West End transfer are wholly justified. As the central duo Spooner and Hirst, Paul Eddington and Pinter himself conjure the sterility born of lifetimes of failure and success respectively, and almost succeed in erasing the race-memory of the roles' creators, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. Eddington's body language is humorously eloquent: rapid, birdlike head movements atop a motionless body as circumstances accelerate beyond his grasp, or recounting an old lover's predilection for "consuming the male member" – he stirs his tea intently and rotates his feet with repressed glee, trying not to look directly at Hirst's response.
If Eddington moves as though walking on ice, Pinter's Hirst lumbers like a golem or a man in armour, carapaced by years of affectation and power-games. His paralytic collapses have (understandably) grown less startlingly total, but I don't agree that he "can't play drunk"; he plays status attempting to deny its drunkenness, a petty emperor who happens to reign from inside a bottle. His air of menace is subtler but more palpable than those of his aides Foster and Briggs, though Douglas Hodge and Gawn Grainger are as fine a pair of grinning, glowering and above all looming minions as one could wish for. David Leveaux expertly evokes the play's humour, pathos, the warfare of gamesmanship and the great chasm beneath it all, which finally yawns in the closing minutes. One to tell your grandchildren about.
Written for City Limits magazine.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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