Review: McKellen And Stewart Tussle In No Man's Land
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Though much more than a star vehicle, there's no doubt that Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are the big box-office draw in this revival of Harold Pinter's No Man's Land. Famously the lead parts were created by John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson in Peter Hall's 1974 iconic production, and here McKellen and Stewart play off each other superbly in Pinter's strangely compelling psychological drama. Reunited with director Sean Mathias after their success with Waiting for Godot in 2009, this is a double act that lives up to the hype.
The set-up is simple yet mysterious. Hirst has met Spooner one evening in a Hampstead Heath pub and invited him back to his grand house, run by the two manservants, Briggs and Foster. As the whisky flows, Spooner seems to be trying to inveigle himself into the household by becoming Hirst’s amanuensis, but Briggs and Foster don’t want him intruding into their territory. A power struggle develops but the characters' motives remain elusive as the truth is always questionable.
It seems that Hirst is a wealthy man of letters, a depressed alcoholic possibly suffering from dementia whose nostalgic memories of when he was young are a brief respite from confronting death. His taciturnity contrasts with the garrulous deference of Spooner, apparently a down-at-heel poet with an absurdly ornate way of speaking. Is Spooner on the make or is he trying to help Hirst out of his mental imprisonment?
In the second act after Hirst seems to mistake Spooner for a long-lost friend, an extraordinary dialogue of one-upmanship ensues as they try to outdo each other with increasingly fantastical — and very funny — stories of youthful affairs. Or perhaps they did know each other in the past?
Meanwhile, Briggs and the younger Foster — who initially claims to be Hirst's son — look on with alternate menace and protectiveness. A homoerotic undercurrent is emphasised here rather than a possible gangsterism, though it's unclear whether they are lovers, carers, bodyguards or gaolers. How much can we believe of what anyone says?
Pinter keeps you guessing in a cat-and-mouse game that lends itself to multiple interpretations. Black comedy mixes with ambiguous threat in an intensely poetic use of language that is all about subtext. There are echoes of other Pinter plays in which an outsider enters an enclosed space creating conflict such as The Caretaker, as well as the unreliable memories of Old Times.
Mathias's taut production is firmly set in the 1970s. Stephen Brimson Lewis's design features film of breeze-blown leafy trees on the heath as a ghostly backdrop to a tomb-like circular room with a well-stocked bar and one throne-like armchair where Hirst presides as the others pay court.
McKellen and Stewart contrast and complement each other brilliantly as Spooner and Hirst: the former nervously blabbing and shifty as he twists himself into awkward shapes while he sizes up the situation, the latter forbiddingly reticent and undemonstrative but whose authority crumbles into sentimental remembrances and drunken stupor. There is strong support from Owen Teale as the gruffly voiced, aggressive Briggs and Damien Molony as the provocatively camp Foster to complete a well-balanced ensemble of competing forces scrabbling around in no man's land.
No Man's Land is on at Wyndham's Theatre until 17 December. Tickets are £10–£75. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.
Last Updated 21 September 2016