While in London last October, little bears went to see Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen in Harold Pinter’s 1975 work No Man’s Land, a bleak and paradoxical comedy. The play was at the Wyndham Theatre, the very theatre where, some forty years ago, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson continued to put their brilliantly eccentric stamp on the roles of Spooner and Hirst in the West End transfer of the original 1975 National Theatre production.
Over the weekend, they saw it again as part of National Theatre Live showing at Luna Palace Cinemas. While the cinema experience cannot capture the experience of watching Sir Patrick and Sir Ian live on stage, the camera close-ups showed details that we missed at the theatre. I don’t think anybody walked out on the play at the Wyndham Theatre, but people did walk out of the cinema at the interval. The play might be a comedy, but it is a dark comedy and not for the faint-hearted; it is quite unsettling with its scary, mystery or bleak vision of the twilight zone between life and death that is old age. It becomes clear as the play progresses that Hirst is entering a realm of either dementia or death. His disconcerting moments of utter vacancy are a chilling reminder that life can become a living death. And this undiscovered country, to which he knows he is heading with a terror that not even the drink can quite blot out, is evoked with an extraordinary bleak beauty, as a “no man’s land which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever, icy and silent“. It is a slow burning tale and audiences may feel even more confused at the end by the lack of a real conclusion as they are left hanging and wondering as to what happens to the four characters.
In the first half it’s night-time. The imposing, grey rotunda set, with drinks cabinet taking pride of central place, is more mausoleum than living-room. In the second half, the following morning, the plot thickens, melts, thaws, and resolves itself into a dew; the pair now seem to know each other, the questions multiply, the bleakness and enigma persist.
Was Pinter describing his own condition at the time: the suffocating isolation of success, his first marriage entering its death-throes? It has been suggested as much, but we’ll never know for certain. Nobody can claim to fully understand the play, and Pinter crossed the twilight zone in 2008. But not before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005. What is certain is the break-through nature of the writing: alcohol loosens tongues, unleashes disconcerting non-sequiturs and much of the sly conversational one-up-manship which Pinter made his own. Harold Pinter’s plays had a recurrent theme of exploring the inability to communicate in relationships. While the dialog is often clear-cut, the expressions of relationships – balances of power, class and gender divisions – lie beneath the words. His plays include dark humour and sometimes they also include violence. Combined with their unpredictability, this makes them frightening.
On Hampstead Heath, Hirst, a moneyed man of letters and a chronic alcoholic, has just run into Spooner, an elderly, down-at-heel pot boy at a Chalk Farm pub, and invited him back to his imposing home for what proves to be far from just the one drink.
In a rumpled suit that looks as if it hasn’t been to the dry cleaner’s since Suez, with filthy tennis shoes and a little ratty grey pony-tail, McKellen is hilariously tragicomic as Spooner, the seedy intruder who will launch into any flight of fantasy if it helps him in his characteristically Pinteresque mission to plant himself in this household. There’s a predatory edge to his obsequiousness and a lovely disjunction between the pretentious literariness of Spooner’s long arias about, say, the golden evenings with his group of supposed protegé poets at his country house (the dated, self-treasuring note – “what can ail? I mean who can gainsay?” – captured perfectly by the actor) and the constant opportunistic cunning of the vagrant that here makes Spooner cradle a sneaky bottle of whisky to his chest for surreptitious top-ups.
Patrick Stewart has great presence and gives a splendidly disconcerting portrayal of Hirst as an artistically bankrupt old soak, marooned in his mausoleum of a home. You can see footage of full-leafed branches swaying in the breeze above Stephen Brimson Lewis’s fine design (in the theatre, not so much in the cinema version) – a reminder of the life teeming outside this hermetic, sterile world of male power games. Stewart can run the gamut from arch hospitality to a wintry extreme of desolate insight within the space of a single line. Hence his prowess at conveying the alarming memory lapses and switches of tack of the alcoholic mind.
The brilliant morning-after-the-night-before scene when a recovered Hirst bounds into the room and greets Spooner as if he were a long-lost friend has some of Pinter’s most virtuosic writing and shows the two actors at their best. Stewart radiates ebullient smugness as he claims to have seduced Spooner’s wife (“I’ll never forget her way with my jonquils”). At first McKellen reacts with slack-jawed dismay but, slowly realising this is some clubman’s fantasy, picks up on the rules of the game. When he reveals he was enthusiastically fellated by one of Hirst’s closest female friends, a smile of triumph spreads across McKellen’s seamed features as he crosses his legs in satisfaction.
Pinter’s play No Man’s Land, in this version directed by Sean Mathias, examines the concepts of ageing, the loss of creativity, the fallibility of the mind and dementia, and the dark place situated between life and death. Despite some of the maudlin themes, there are plenty of light humorous moments to lift the mood. But for a play that was written in the 1970’s, it addresses challenging concepts such as dementia, alcoholism and homosexuality in a unique way. Even though none of these topics are ever mentioned specifically, it’s quite obvious that Hirst is suffering from memory loss. The degradation causing him moments of sadness and frustration as he grasps at fleeting moments, but also brief moments of levity when he does remember.
In Pinter’s play, alcoholism is a tool, a means with which Hirst tries to dull the pain of his anguish. On the other hand, Spooner’s extroverted personality seems to only grow with the more drinks he downs. As the play progresses we also notice how there is a mirror between Hirst and Spooner, both ageing writers with a wonderfully colourful view of the world. Hirst, slowly sinking into depression and darkness, Spooner constantly hopeful and with a romantic view of the world, but their dichotomy is only superficial. These are both men who are almost identical, the only difference being their circumstances, Hirst of wealth, whilst Spooner is struggling to get by.
The inclusion of Briggs and Foster as “servants” to Hirst is both indicative of these younger men trying to steal money away but it could also be suggested that they may have a closer relationship. There are moments where Foster alludes to Briggs taking him in and being particularly bonded and close, they may just be good friends, or possibly something more.
Pinter’s play is open to many interpretations. On the surface, it looks simple enough. Spooner, a minor versifier and pub potman, is invited back into the luxurious Hampstead pad of a famous writer, Hirst. But, while the wheedling Spooner seeks to ingratiate himself with his heavy-drinking host, he finds himself blocked by Hirst’s intimidating manservants, Briggs and Foster. Gradually the tone shifts as Spooner seeks to reignite Hirst’s creative imagination and stir his memories. The attempt fails as Hirst seems trapped forever in an unyielding no man’s land which serves as an anteroom to death. By the end of the play, Spooner turns into Hirst’s potential rescuer but is thwarted by the immovable fact of mortality.
The production, by Sean Mathias, opened to acclaim in the US in 2013 — but some references were lost in translation. “We promised one another while we were out there that if we lived long enough we would do the play in London. It’s not just an English play, it’s a London play — and here we are”, said Stewart.
“There is something intimate and familiar about doing it in London. It’s like bringing an old friend back home. So many of the references in the play London audiences get in a shot — such as, ‘Do you often hang about Hampstead Heath?’ But that didn’t get that reaction at all in the US, and neither did all the cricket references.”
McKellen said: “I think it turns out to be a funnier play here than the Americans quite realised.”
The original production starred Sir John Gielgud as Spooner and Sir Ralph Richardson as Hirst. Stewart was there on opening night and returned to see it twice in the same week. Sean Mathias was also there on the opening night. Stewart said: “I worship both of those actors, and they had very distinctive styles and voices. I can hear Sir Ralph’s voice in my head now, and there’s one line that I say exactly as I remember him saying it.”
McKellen found it daunting to follow in Gielgud’s footsteps. He said: “I thought it was impossible for me. That’s why I didn’t want to do the play. It’s taken an awfully long time to forget those intonations.” Ian McKellen has been nominated for the 2017 WhatsOnStage Award for Best Actor in a Play for his role in No Man’s Land. The winners will be announced in February 19. The play has also been nominated for the 2017 WhatsOnStage Award for Best Play Revival, and it has already won the 2016 Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Play Revival.
Director Sean Mathias answers questions ahead of the live broadcast and Owen Teale and Damien Molony chat to Talks@Google.
Four excellent actors, under Mathias’s direction, exquisitely captured the fluctuations of mood of this remarkable play. Pinter’s No Man’s Land is both desolate and funny and conveys, without peddling any message, the never-ending contrast between the exuberance of memory and the imminence of extinction.