If, as I currently am, you’re stuck in self isolation mode, could there be any more appropriately titled theatrical piece to engage with than Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land? This mordant drama about people living out their existence in a vacuum, unable to move forward and perpetually harking back seems tailor made for such times with its strong intimations of wartime stalemate. And as it is one of the latest offerings to make its way onto the National Theatre At Home’s platform, quality was pretty much assured. The play originally premiered in a legendary mid 1970s National Theatre production with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. This production hails from London in 2016, though it began life in new York three years earlier, when theatrical knights Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart followed their earlier success in Waiting For Godot with this most enigmatic of dramas. It’s the sort of play that inevitably attracts high quality actors and just as well as there is little plot to tie events together and it needs some dazzling playing to get the content singing.
Such as it is, the narrative revolves around the visit of Spooner, a very minor poet, to the Hampstead home of Hirst who is significantly higher in the literary pecking order but seems to be mired in a creative bog. Although they have ostensibly met by chance it is increasingly hinted that Spooner is a man with a plan and has put himself in the way of the other in order to deliberately invade his life and take over his household. This will be firmly resisted by Foster and Briggs, a pair of associates/servants who already have Hirst where they want him and will resist the intrusion of the outsider. A battle of wits and wills is enjoined with power regularly shifting from person to person. In the end little advance is made and the quartet will evidently remain in a fragile alliance and an uneasily perpetual state of limbo. As such the whole play might be likened to an elegant dance and indeed the mood consistently shifts from the hilarious, to the reflective, from the sinister to the celebratory.
Neither of the two main roles are an easy ask, and although both McKellen and Stewart are absolutely perfect casting it is the former who emerges with honours especially in the first third of the play where he has the bulk of the dialogue and mines every opportunity which presents itself. His (apparently) shambling ragbag of an interloper plays clear homage to Gielgud but somehow goes beyond mere impersonation. In an ill-fitting suit and perpetually clutching a shabby raincoat and Hirst’s appropriated bottle of Scotch, McKellen delivers a virtual monologue which is a masterclass of timing and precision. Stewart is confined throughout to what in a film would be called reaction shots – the raised eyebrow, the pursed lips and so on. Slowly his portrait of an embittered alcoholic gains prominence and when the pair engage in scenes where the balance of power is on the proverbial knife edge, the theatrical fireworks are dazzling. The highlight undoubtedly comes at the start of Act 2 where the pair almost parody the Gwendolen/Cecily tea drinking scene from The Importance Of Being Earnest with their tales of sexual one-upmanship.
While Damien Molony (Foster) and Owen Teale (Briggs) have significantly less to do they ensure they make their mark with a well placed sense of threat which is within the tradition of some of Pinter’s other menacing double acts such as in The Birthday Party and The Caretaker. Teale, in particular, raises the humour levels with his portrayal of the domesticated heavy, serving champagne and scrambled eggs for breakfast in prissily domesticated fashion. Sean Mathias’s capable direction finds both humour and pathos in the situation. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s brooding setting has some of the aura of a stultifying prison though there are glimpses of the Hampstead trees outside; these too, though, only serve to make the surroundings more claustrophobic.
The set is dominated by an over large drinks cupboard reminding one of Pinter’s tight-lipped response when questioned as to what his plays were about: “The weasel under the cocktail cabinet” he enigmatically quipped. It is, therefore, a moot point as to what the play ultimately reveals. No Man’s Land represents the place of increasing age and intellectual inertia “which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever, icy and silent”. It is a place we all must come to, and all must fear.