When star casting works, the results can be thrilling and sublime. So it is with Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land starring Sir Ian McKellan and Sir Patrick Stewart, two true stars, two real giants of stage and screen, both absolute masters of theatrical alchemy. This is a flawless display of real skill and the result is macabre, thoughtful, slightly frightening, and very, very funny. Currently, there is nothing to match it on the West End.
Tension chars the atmosphere. Both men are sitting, a small table between them. On the left hand side, the tall man slumps, his face a crumpled handkerchief, a wretched air of despair throbbing from him.
Across, on the right hand side, licking his lips like a sated panther, the bald, fastidious man is finishing his tale, revelling in the discomfort his admission of a clandestine affair from decades ago is having on his colleague. An awful moment of perfectly ordinary horror: Right, superior and crushing; Left, inferior and crushed.
Then, the handkerchief smooths and swirls, as if some origami master was racing to win an award. The features reassemble, sly vengeance creeps into the eyes and Left starts his own tale.
Revenge is sweet and when the coup de grâce is delivered, the handkerchief moves quickly through tentative slyness, exuberant triumph and then hovers on basking, rapturous joy. Right resembles a boiled egg – hot, fuming, ready to crack.
And the audience laughs and laughs and laughs.
Now playing at the Wyndhams Theatre is Sean Mathias’ revival of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, a truly glittering example of beautifully acted, thoughtfully presented and thoroughly engaging theatre.
It’s as funny or funnier than any production seen on the West End, barring Noises Off – and it demonstrates how wit, warmth and wonder can co-exist perfectly on stage.
There is no point in trying to summarise the action: not everyone will see the play, and the events that unfold, the same way. There is a cast of four, a single room, the idea of being trapped in limbo, a series of conversations, most of which are threatening in some way but all of which are revealing, and a sense of an unrelenting game being played by the four.
There may be homosexual undertones. There may be men who just find women incomprehensible rather than undesirable. There may be professional jealousies. There may be a sense that successful artistic life is necessarily dead. There may be a lot of references to cricket, Oxford and champagne – the signposts of civilised society (?) – and their corrosive effect. There may be unfinished sentences, thoughts, lives. There may be memory issues, questions about where truth ends and nostalgia begins.
There may be a contrast between the rustic, green world outside and the solemn, formal room where discussions occur. There may be an inevitable feeling that what is happening has happened before, that the participants are trapped in a perpetual cycle, doomed to relive their past indiscretions/achievements – caught squarely in, well, No Man’s Land.
What is clear is that No Man’s Land sees Pinter riffing on a theme he enjoyed: a stranger intruding upon a settled environment. The Birthday Party, The Homecoming and The Caretaker all approach this idea in different ways.
Mathias ensures that the production is smooth and inviting; it is also shining with clarity. You might not follow what is happening, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t, but you always understand what is happening.
Emphasising the comedy, not in a slapstick or farcical way, but by honing the scalpel and slicing out laughs from raw, bitter humanity, Mathias ensures that the lurking menace is never far from the mind, the discomforting sense of fatal inevitability constantly present. In the moment after your laugh has gurgled away, the pangs of uncertainty about why you were laughing take their toll.
The sense of a rotting, hopeless world-in-aspic is underlined by Mathias. Both Hirst (Patrick Stewart) and Spooner (Ian McKellen) start the play crumpled, lacking power, vague, lost, feeble. Hirst’s physical collapses are shocking; Spooner seems lost in a haze of dementia. But as the evening progresses, each seems to take strength and comfort from the presence of the other. After Spooner has spent the night alone in darkness, he seems refreshed and so does Hirst. Their sparring takes on vigorous life.
Then, towards the end of the second Act, you see the cycle starting to return to its beginning point, or at least the place where the audience started seeing the cycle. You realise these characters are trapped and you realise they know they are trapped. And then, you feel it is all about to start again.
Everything about the production shines. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set and costume design is splendid – the costumes are period, gaudy and splendidly right while also being not right (McKellen’s crumpled suit is perfection, Stewart’s dressing gown a prison of its own); the set is imposing and whimsical (could it be half a snow dome, to hammer home the aspic feel?).
Screens and projections (Nina Dunn) are used to emphasise the verdant, happy, blooming world that shrouds the Hirst home and when the front screen is raised for the action to begin, a little shadow of curtain remains, suggesting a theatre, that we are viewing a play – or a snow dome. Contrasts abound in cloth and vision.
Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting and Adam Cork’s sound ensure that Lewis’ set and Mathias’ vision is always properly supported – best advantage abounds. Silences and shadows prove potent; the sudden absence or arrival of light disorienting. The on-edge feeling is tangible.
Happily, nothing about the design interferes with the performances; enhancement is the name of the game.
And what performances…
McKellen is immaculate as the apparently down-on-his-luck writer, Spooner, that Stewart’s Hirst plucks from a pub in Hampstead Heath. His performance is defined by the words Pinter penned:
I often hang about Hampstead Heath myself, expecting nothing. I’m too old for any kind of expectation.
McKellen’s Spooner is a loner, but looking for support, friendship, money; he wears his age easily and sadly, but there is fire still in his lugubrious shuffling; he takes what is dished out, but is not incapable of striking back; chameleon like, he takes his cues from those around him and makes his state better. But the ineffable sadness is constantly present, as well as the sense that he might just be capable of great violence.
Comic timing is at a premium with McKellen, impeccable and irresistible. He manages to be able to screw his face into a million origami positions, much like a handkerchief. Small movements of the face can bring down the house. He is mesmerising.
So too is Stewart, who, in some ways, has the less flashy part, but makes the most of what he has. The marvellous scene in Act Two when his smarminess and condescension shatters McKellen’s Spooner momentarily (tales of erotic indiscretions past) is brilliantly played, intensely amusing and awfully human. He also handles well the ambiguous relationships he has with Damian Molony’s Foster and Owen Teale’s Briggs, his possible amanuensis. Sexual tension is there, but receding and progressing like the tidal sea.
But it is the dimunition physically of Hirst which is most impressive. Stewart is strong and vibrant, controlled and cool in some scenes and then, suddenly, a near cadaver, a man near painful death. It’s astonishing to watch these transformations and wonder how they happened before your eyes.
Both actors enjoy the language and give precisely correct weight to every word, every phrase. Some words are lovingly articulated, the consonants pleasure points; others are fired like rockets, always finding their mark. It’s rare to hear dialogue sound as poetic and effortless as it sounds here.
Molony is an exemplary “vagabond cock”, a bristling, pouting, sexually ambiguous and latently terrifying Foster. He makes dark shadows his friend and convinces as a lurker on the edge, one whose power and influence over Hirst waxes and wanes. His loud clothes reflect his arrogance and his sense of his own masculinity. The moment he plunges Spooner into darkness is chillingly intense. Molony is superb.
The final member of this strange, emotionally crippled quartet is Briggs, the carer/lover?/protector/secretary of Hirst, here played by Teale with an intensity and earthy brutality that would make Eastenders‘ Grant Mitchell squirm. Teale is not quite in the game the same way as the others; while the champagne scene with McKellen’s Spooner was delicious, his big set piece about directions to Bolsolver Street did not meet its mark.
Together, the foursome give new energy to Pinter’s words, and Mathias shows you a different way to look at the play.
A really remarkable evening. Theatrical joy.
You are in no man’s land. Which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever, icy and silent.
I’ll drink to that!
So will I.