The first production of Harold Pinter’s Moonlight, at the Almeida Theatre and later the West End in 1993, was memorable more for Ian Holm’s return to the stage after many years than the writing, which at the time came across as quite insubstantial.
Pinter’s later plays typically mature with time, and this one has deepened in resonance and clarity during the 18 years since those first performances. As with No Man’s Land, between 1975 and the Almeida revival nearly two decades later, in which Pinter himself played Hirst, the play has gained in weight and emotional power. In the Donmar’s superb revival, it shines brilliantly.
Perhaps the world has caught up a little with Pinter’s vision.
Moonlight came hot on the heels of a series of short, sharp and shocking mini-plays and it was a world apart from the political forthrightness of works like Mountain Language and Party Time . The new departure (albeit laced with familiar themes) was somewhat mystifying, describing a sardonic, domestic morass of loss and disconnection.
The play lurches in fits and starts, like an engine in trouble but managing somehow to keep going in Bijan Sheibani’s stylish and measured direction. It focuses around certain key events, stalling almost completely at moments of crisis before jerking back into smoky life. He gives the script’s strangeness and otherworldliness its due, something that’s often missing in recent Pinter productions.
Hypnotic as the cranky, dying old man, David Bradley leads an exceptionally strong cast. Deborah Findlay is a perfect foil to his bitterness and spite, playing her own cards skillfully but having to shoulder at least some of the burden of the family’s deep dysfunction.
As the exiled boys, Daniel Mays and Liam Garrigan banter, bicker and play-act like old music-hall performers. All is oblique and refracted, no-one connecting with their own lives or relationships. The table-turning phone call the mother makes to her sons late in the play is a stunningly awkward theatrical moment.
Carol Royle and Paul Shelley as the other couple in a complicated sexual tangle perfectly complement Bradley and Findlay’s riveting performances and a wispy Lisa Diveney is affecting as the dead daughter.
Pinter uses techniques you might expect from a first timer rather than a master writer – dovetailing of scenes and the floating in and out of characters from the past – but with the command and control of a great playwright entering the last phase of his career. It all adds up to a haunting evening, uncomfortable but heartwrenching and uplifting for the buoyancy and shimmer of Pinter’s extraordinary language.