The West End is buzzing following the star-studded press night of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart’s double act earlier this week, and well it should be. Two titans of British theatre shoulder to shoulder in what has often been described as Harold Pinter’s best (if most baffling) work.
First written in 1974 and performed a year later, it feels more momentous to be seeing it over forty years on at Wyndham’s, where it transferred after initially opening at the Old Vic – and we are taken right back to Pinter’s 70’s heyday thanks to Stephen Brimson Lewis’s retro costumes which make it clear from first glance that Hirst (Stewart) is well heeled and that his acquaintance, Spooner (McKellan) is not. The two actors last came together on stage in 2009 for Sean Mathias’s acclaimed production of Waiting for Godot and they are just as driven to provide the director with something equally thought-provoking this time around.
Hirst, a man of letters, apparently met Spooner, an unsuccessful poet, in a pub that evening and has invited him over to his palatial home in Hampstead for a further drink; the entire action of the play remaining focussed in the luxurious drawing room as we journey from late that night to the following morning. Roughly the same age as Hirst, Spooner has fallen on hard times, and from the weathered coat he continues to hold, to his one trouser leg being tucked into his sock (for no apparent reason save to show a lack of care in dressing), we are immediately intrigued to discover his history.
But however much Spooner talks during the opening scene, we never seem to discover much about him save his lowly financial status and that he, like his host, suffers from alcoholism; McKellan on brilliant form as he illustrates the uncontrollable nature of the addiction by taking up Hirst’s offer that he help himself to the ever depleting bottle of whisky – with strange consequences. The more inebriated Spooner becomes, the more flamboyant his conversation, and before long he mentions his homosexual tendencies, prompting us to wonder about Hirst, whom we know has been married, yet remains uncomfortably quiet.
It’s a play that is always open to many interpretations, but I can’t help but wonder if the rife closet homosexuality – which continued in society long past homosexual acts were decriminalised in 1967 – is the ‘no man’s land’ Pinter refers to? For being openly gay remained a taboo that not even a change of law succeeded in breaking down immediately, particularly in professional circles where men often felt obliged to live a double life; concealing their sexuality in a guise of respectability and never revealing their true selves to their families and work colleagues. Even Spooner has fathered, he declares with a mixture of pride, embarrassment and sadness – perhaps at what his life might have been had he not chosen the path that was presumably expected of him.
Although Hirst gives little away early on, Stewart is all the more captivating because of this – listening and nodding just enough for us to question what is in his mind, yet it’s when his composure slips as he gets more intoxicated that the fun really begins, and after falling over and murmuring, “No man’s land…does not move…or change…or grow old…remains…forever…icy…silent,’ he finally leaves the room leaving us pitying him. Moments later a handsome, fashionably dressed young man by the name of Foster (Damien Molony) enters, disturbing Spooner’s communion with the whisky bottle and interrogating him as to what he is doing there.
In one of many bafflements, Foster initially claims to be Hirst’s son but later appears to be no more than a pushy assistant with a tattoo-fisted sidekick called Briggs (Owen Teale) who acts as a rather menacing housekeeper. Their relationship is clearly sexual and both are keen to drive the interloper out if only their boss would let them, for in a further twist Hirst returns and claims to have known Spooner from his university days before confessing to having enjoyed a passionate affair with his wife. When Spooner goes along with this, mentioning other mutual acquaintances, you feel as if someone is playing a trick on you and it’s only natural to look to your companion quizzically.
The most important things to acknowledge are that No Man’s Land is a riddle that you are not intended to leave the theatre having solved and that Pinter would not be able to tease and frustrate us without the brilliant direction of Mathias and all four actors pushing his writing to the edge – for that’s exactly what they do with this production. Even if you go home scratching your forehead in confusion, you’re bound to be in awe of the craftsmanship which allows us to become utterly absorbed in this one-room, four-man puzzle of human nature.
No Man’s Land at Wyndham’s Theatre until 17th December 2016. Production images by Johan Persson. For more information and tickets please visit the website.