No Man’s Land

Posted by Laurence Green

Laurence Green reviews Sean Mathias revived version of Harold Pinter's 1975 tragicomedy, No Man's Land.

No Man's Land

It is a pleasure to find two theatrical knights – Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart – reunited on the West End stage for the first time in seven years as the main characters in Harold Pinter’s 1975 tragicomedy No Man’s Land, revived in a new production, directed by Sean Mathias, at the Wyndham’s Theatre.

One summer’s evening, two ageing writers, Hirst and Spooner meet in a Hampstead pub and continue their drinking into the night at Hirst’s stately house nearby. As the pair become increasingly inebriated, and their stories increasingly unbelievable, the lively conversation soon turns into a revealing power game, further complicated by the return home of two sinister young men.

First let me confess that this is not one of my favourite Pinter plays as it lacks dramatic impetus and remains infuriatingly enigmatic. “All we have left is the English language” is a remark made early on in the play and it remains the key to the work, as the story is slight, with everything revolving around the two-way banter between the protagonists. But, whereas, for example, in The Caretaker, we have some wonderfully funny lines and illuminating insight into characters and situations, here we merely get a mixture of bleakness and paradoxical comedy – although to be fair there is a sprinkling of sharp wit throughout. Mathias’s production certainly captures the constant tension between life and mortality, resignation and resistance and fixity and flux.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’s grey rotunda set, with drinks cabinet taking pride of place, is more mausoleum that living room, while later on the constant swaying trees gradually take on an icy coloration as the play reaches its terminal stages.

This may be a work, which defies interpretation, or at least there are many interpretations one can put on it, but no such reservations remain about the two stars who play off each other beautifully. In the opening scene in particular Ian McKellen, with a jaunty corduroy cap perfectly captures Spooner’s chattering anxiety and desperate desire to please. Patrick Stewart’s Hirst, meanwhile, exudes an infinite weariness as he drinks himself into oblivion and later radiates ebullient smugness as he claims to have seduced Spooner’s wife. The ingratiating nature of the minor versifier Spooner and the wealthy, immursed Hirst, cut off from the source of his original inspiration and representing a dark foreboding of the isolation of fame, are well conveyed by McKellen and Stewart respectively. Good support is provided by Owen Teale and Damien Molony as the two sinister strangers who claim to be Hirst’s henchmen.

There is no doubt, though, that this production belongs to McKellen and Stewart, who were last seen together on stage in Waiting For Godot in 2009. These giants of the acting profession have a combined age of 153 but their powers remain seemingly undimmed and one hopes that this is not their theatrical swansong.

No Man’s Land

Playing at Wyndham’s Theatre until 17 December 2016. 

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