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.