Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart finally bring this Pinter classic to London
At this stage in their august careers, Sirs Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart could pretty much star in any old bollocks and get praised to high heaven. But they’re better than that.
Maybe it’s not exactly daring of them to team up for a revival of Harold Pinter’s cryptic 1975 masterpiece ‘No Man’s Land’: it’s a play about two old guys that has been successfully performed in the West End on multiple occasions, and McKellen and Stewart have already done it to acclaim on Broadway, where this production by Sean Mathias originated.
Still, it’s emphatically not a ‘vehicle’, not a play that allows famous actors to preen and grandstand. Ultimately the star is the late Pinter and his effortless way with writing hilarious, terrifying plots that defy logical explanation.
It is very late one night in what appears to be a very nice house in Hampstead. Hirst (Stewart), the smartly dressed homeowner, is monumentally trollied, to the point of barely being able to speak. With him is the puckish, loquacious Spooner (McKellen), whom Hirst has seemingly met for the first time that night and invited back for a drink. Both proceed to knock back epic quantities of whiskey and vodka; but where Hirst lapses into a virtual coma, Spooner only seems to gain in fortitude, nimbly mocking his host, needling him with questions about his love life. Hirst crawls out. Spooner is triumphant. Then spivvy toughs Foster (Damien Molony) and Briggs (Owen Teale) enter and start menacing the old stranger. Shortly after, in walks Hirst, now apparently possessed of a completely different personality, with no memory of Spooner. Spooner is understandably confused.
I believe a common interpretation of the play is that Spooner has stepped into a twilight realm between life and death, in which myriad incarnations of Hirst look obsessively back on a life they can’t remember clearly. But the texture and the language is the main thing with Pinter, and these titans rise to it note perfect. McKellen is the more obviously impressive performer: as much as anything else, the 77-year-old is just impressively nimble as he skitters about on tiptoes, exuding both mischievous opportunism and wheedling desperation as he tries to insinuate himself into Hirst’s life and history. But Stewart perhaps edges it with the blank, understated menace he brings to each version of Hirst, unnervingly puncturing the play’s moments of levity.
There are a lot of those: Mathias’s revival is kind of played for laughs, which is fair enough. Pinter’s work evolved from classic English farce, and there are some absolutely peachy one-liners in here (the best is surely Briggs furiously bellowing ‘the best time to drink champagne is before lunch, you cunt’). Set and costume designer Stephen Brimson Lewis also extracts some definite LOLs with the ’70s setting: Molony and Teale look ludicrous, and a the deadpan deployment of an anachronistic serving trolley gets a deserved round of giggles (there are also some unintentional laughs from the projected CGI trees in the background, though you learn to live with them).
It’s not a boundary-pushing or definitive production, but it’s a finely balanced and entertaining one, suggestive of the absurdity and chaos of late life and the disintegration of memory. Above all, it’s two actors who still live up to their legend nailing one of the great works of a playwright who still lives up to his.
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Unwatchable. Two of the world's acting greats perform a script of complete nonsense flawlessly. It's was like listening to Winston Churchill read the wheels on the bus go round and round.
The play starts and ends in limbo, no clarity on any situation is ever given and the middle meanders into randomness constantly. It's like Pinter's word count was on the low side and he added chapters from books he had easily to hand.
What a sad waste of time and money. We had bought 8 tickets at around £600 total and were thoroughly disappointed.
This was an absolutely brilliant show and I enjoyed the play between the various actors, especially Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. This is a play that leaves a lot to audience to interpret so everyone will get something different from the play. Thoroughly enjoyed the play.
Second time I have seen these two on stage and they don't make it easy! Godot was hard to understand and this one is no different. They are both completely brilliant in their performance in opposing characters and supported by two great actors too. My interpretation is that they are two long time rivals in the literatti - one has his mind in tact but is less successful career-wise (McKellan) while the other has a memory-issue (from old age perhaps?) but has been very successful career-wise and is living the-life with help. At first you think they have just met and then you realise the two have a long history together through their literary circles. The reference to No-Man's Land is made a few times and it can be interpreted in a number of ways... I can't remember the first reference which was made by Stewart's character in the first half. However i observed a few references... is it about being belittled beyond comprehension? Is it about being in a situation that is completely beneath you where you swallow your pride out of sheer desperation? Is it about dementia and loss of memory long and short term? Is it about ageing and the inability to cope with the loss of youth? It is an interesting play that is thought provoking and leaves you applauding on your feet with the sheer brilliance of it all but leaves you wondering long into the night.