Previously published by The Reviews Hub
‘I have never been loved, from this I draw my strength’; Pinter’s version of no man’s land exists in a strange purgatorial world, somewhere between love and complete solitude, between past and future, between reality and dreams. The four men, in what is probably his least straightforwardly comprehensible play, speak of the outside world, of experiences they’ve had or the life they currently live, but they are trapped in a room together which they will never escape, they are in a limbo state, they are in no man’s land.
Hirst, a man of letters, meets the chancer Spooner in a pub in north London and invites him back to his lonely home on Hampstead Heath to continue drinking where they are eventually joined by Hirst’s younger companions and employees. Over the course of that night and the following morning the men exchange numerous anecdotes in a cat-and-mouse game as memories and fiction blurs their conversation.
Pinter is not the easiest playwright to get to grips with and the absurdist nature of No Man’s Land is probably the least accessible. Yet, Sean Mathias’s production brings a deep understanding of Pinter’s rhythm, so while much of the dialogue is exchanges of nonsense, Pinter’s themes of varying sources of control, disconcerting connections to the past and the effect of an interloper on an established environment come across particularly strongly. Watching the power shift around the room as different groups of characters come together and are exposed is one of the high points of this interpretation.
It is a production that is never less than compelling which is entirely due to its four performers whose interaction gives flight to Pinter’s bizarre tale. It is demanding for an audience because the dialogue is deliberately unnatural with long unbroken monologues that demand an interruption from another character that never comes. These are not Shakespearean soliloquies that deliberately unburden the speaker’s emotions or troubles, but odd rambling stories that may not even be true, giving little insight or empathy. Yet the fascination lays in watching them unfold and the momentary belief that Spooner or Hirst invests in them before they flitter away as easily as memories. In the hands of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart they become a form of theatre gold.
McKellen, sartorially channelling David Tennant’s Dr Who in pinstriped suit and plimsolls, perfectly suits the verbosity and poetic tone of Spooner, a man who creeps gently around the room, refilling his glass and inveigling his way into the household. As you would expected, McKellen enjoys playing with the language and wringing every ounce of meaning from the lines, yet there is an obvious shrinking and wariness when confronted by the more masculine Foster and Briggs, as if afraid of being seen through or found out. In McKellen’s performance, Spooner’s version of no man’s land is being an outsider, never loved, wanted or welcomed, which leads him to a desperation that McKellen exploits well.
Patrick Stewart’s Hirst is the perfect contrast and for a long-time hardly speaks as his companion waffles on. This Hirst is initially more reserved and made morose by the copious amounts of drink, yet as the night wears on he slowly opens. For the audience, Stewart’s initial restraint is then rewarded with a couple of beautifully haunting scenes reflecting on the past and his obsession with the people in his album, saying “you find me in the last lap of a race I’ve forgotten to run”. Stewart’s Hirst is stuck in his own no man’s land, a past that will never return.
The leads receive very fine support from a whiskered Owen Teale as cook-cum-butler Briggs whose gravelly voice and hard-man image belie a genuinely caring and tender side. His first appearance in full 70s garb is deliberately gangster-like but he gets several of his own monologues in which Teale brilliantly reveals the affection for Foster while, despite his physical presence, easily accepting Stewart’s authority. Briggs’s ambiguously homoerotic relationship with Damian Molony’s younger Foster is nicely pitched, but Molony’s press night nerves meant the youthful freshness this character brings to the play was a little lost in rushed delivery. However, I did see a preview performance as well where Molony was considerably more relaxed and extremely good as the cocky young caretaker.
This production has thought carefully about its design, with Stephen Brimson Lewis’s semi-circular set creating a masculine panelled world that keeps the characters locked in, while the edges of exposed and broken beams reflect its essential rottenness. A large circular mat is slightly out of sync with the concentric circles of the floor which add to the disconcerting feel and reflect the circuity of the dialogue. And while the younger men sport obviously 70s outfits, the elder and the room itself have a timeless quality – itself a reflection of a no man’s land of sorts.
Arguably Mathias’ interpretation is perhaps a little too safe, opting for a very straight, traditional production that while extremely well executed, may not attract such a diverse audience. As someone who has always struggled with Pinter – and being unable to get to grips with a previous version of No Man’s Land with Michael Gambon and David Bradley – it wasn’t until Jamie Lloyd’s vibrant production of The Homecoming at Trafalgar Studios last January, that I really began to see why Pinter’s work has lasted so well. The sheer aggression of it and the bold design didn’t make me love Pinter but I did begin to understand his themes and style.
Now, No Man’s Land is a far more sedate and reflective play than The Homecoming, looking at a different part of life, but it could be a hard sell to a younger audience despite the brilliance of its leads. Ticket prices too may well be a problem and in the queue to collect a £10 preview ticket booked back in March on my first viewing of this, the box office only had premium day seats for £150, which as much as l love the theatre is an insane amount of money to spend, especially on what really is a very difficult work. Delfont Mackintosh do still have much cheaper tickets available, including some standing spaces for £10 but do book in advance rather than risk having to pay so much at the last minute.
So as a number of our leading men take to the stage, Branagh’s The Entertainer and now, Mckellen and Stewart’s No Man’s Land have proven to be unmissable. It may be one of Pinter’s hardest plays but for many it will be the performances they come for which are as fine as you will see this autumn season. And while the meaning of No Man’s Land may remain as obscure as ever, this production gives clarity to Pinter’s reflections on reality, fiction and the places in between.