What a treat to see two theatrical knights effortlessly (or so it seems) give it their all in Harold Pinter’s infuriating but excellent 1975 play, No Mans Land. Of course Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart do not disappoint and neither do the remaining two members of the cast, Owen Teale and Damien Molony. A brilliant cast of four, performing in a play by a brilliant playwright; what could be better? As it happens not much, because this production at Wyndhams Theatre is a delight from start to finish.
Nothing much happens in No Man’s Land, although there is a continuous atmosphere of “Pinter” unease throughout. Will something nasty happen or not? Stephen Brimson Lewis’s exquisite set sets the scene from the start. Before lights up, we view a gloomy night-time copse, which soon gives way to a smart library belonging to successful literary figure, Hirst (Patrick Stewart). He has brought Spooner (McKellen) a failed poet, back to his house for a late night glass of malt whisky, or should I say glasses, following their meeting in a North London pub. The two men’s outward appearance couldn’t be more different. Hirst oozes wealth in his beautifully tailored pinstripe suit and bow tie, whilst Spooner’s cheap suit is crumpled and he exudes more than a whiff of seediness. Whilst Hirst assumes an air of quiet superiority, the loquacious Spooner attempts to ingratiate himself with his host. What follows is a conversation between the two men, the content of which may or may not be true (but probably isn’t). On the arrival of Briggs (Owen Teale) some kind of major-domo to Hirst and Foster (Damien Molony), who may or may not be his son (but probably isn’t), their menacing air towards the interloper, racks up the tension. Is their resentment towards him anything to do with their sexual proclivity? The following morning, after Spooner has spent the night locked in the room, the two older men continue their bewildering exchange, with Hirst now appearing to remember Spooner from his past (or does he?). Confusing? Yes, very. Although it could all be the result of one or other, or both of the older men suffering from some kind of dementia, no-one really knows. This is Pinter land at it’s confusing best.
Sean Mathias’s tight production enables these two elderly actors to prove that they are far from being past their prime, even managing to ensure that McKellen resists any desire to overact. There is a wonderful moment when Spooner’s pursed lips (the result of Hirst admitting that he slept with his wife) speak volumes. In addition the two younger men more than hold their own in such esteemed company and play the Kray like heavies to perfection.
The two hours fly by. I can’t pretend to understand the play, but what I do know is that those two hours are an absolute joy. It is an enormous privilege to watch two superlative actors reprise their double handed sparring match following Waiting for Godot in 2009. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were to ever happen again?