One doubts if any tears were shed over Goold’s anemic production of Pinter’s No Man’s Land at the Duke of York. Goold seems omnipresent these days, with his successful Macbeth, which played on Broadway, and his King Lear with Pete Postlethwaite soon to open in London. But barring a few nifty light cues, he’s absented his auteurism from this revival. Michael Gambon made a cracking Hirst, a role that Pinter himself once played. But here the play seemed more a worthy exercise than a chilling meditation. I did not feel, as Michael Billington wrote of its 1974 premiere, “the sense of being caught in some mysterious limbo between life and death, between a world of brute reality and one of fluid uncertainty,” as much as I felt the sense of being caught in some middlingly mysterious cocktail hour. Hirst, tended by two manservants, has invited the obsequious Spooner (David Bradley) to help guzzle his supply of malt. While Spooner claims, perhaps falsely, that he’s a poet, Hirst is known as a lauded man of letters, rather like Pinter himself. The play may then function as a psychodrama of the playwright’s experience of his own position—half literary lion, half impostor—an impression aided by Gambon’s resemblance to the eldery Pinter, frail and formidable at once.

Harley Granville Barker’s Waste, staged at the Almeida, did not seem frail in the least—though the 100-year-old play is somewhat unwieldy. It lays claim to a three-hour running time, 16-person cast, and stage directions one might easily mistake for slim novellas. (This, and its numerous conversations devoted to political arcana like the government’s disestablishment from the Church of England, may explain its infrequent reviving.) Waste concerns a parliamentarian, Henry Trebell (Will Keen), who impregnates a married woman (Nancy Carroll) after a loveless tussle. She dies following a botched back-alley abortion, and the threat of scandal destroys his career—a pair of lives unduly wasted. Director Samuel West offered a sensitive and nuanced revival, with able cast, pleasant settings, and gorgeous Edwardian costumes, yet I found myself restless, less engaged with the production than I desired. Perhaps this owes to Granville Barker’s somewhat turgid writing (a phenomenon that David Mamet countered last year with his streamlined adaptation of The Voysey Inheritance). Or one might attribute it to my seeing the play two days after the election, when its mood of political cynicism didn’t precisely resonate. Or the fact that I was seated behind a large pole—damn the lure of cheap tickets!

Nothing, alas, obstructed my view of The White Devil, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, performed on a narrow strip of stage with audience on either side. One of John Webster’s enjoyably messy efforts, it follows the love affair between the Duke of Bracciano and Vittoria Corombona, which occasioned numerous murders. By the end of this 1612 revenge tragedy, nine bodies had littered the stage. One poor actor, doubling roles, had to die twice. As the cast slogged up and down the strip of stage, expiring occasionally, director Jonathan Munby’s production seemed more forced march than fiendish delight. Additionally, a few of the roles, most particularly Claire Price as Vittoria, were woefully miscast.

The coast of "Ivanov": Andrea Riseborough and Kenneth  
Branagh in Stoppard's version of Chekhov
J. Persson
The coast of "Ivanov": Andrea Riseborough and Kenneth Branagh in Stoppard's version of Chekhov

But finding fault with The White Devil isn’t a new phenomenon. Like the original productions of Ivanov and Six Characters in Search of an Author, the play earned ire at its debut, leading Webster to deride his audience as “ignorant asses.” Yet this ignorant ass could still enjoy the play’s complement of ghoulish aphorisms and rhymes, such as “I’ll ne’er think thee dead/’Til I can play at football with thine head.”

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