Friday, 23 September 2016

No Man's Land - Review

Wyndhams Theatre, London


*****

Written by Harold Pinter
Directed by Sean Mathias


Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart

Every once in a while the theatrical planets align to create a pairing of such fine actors that it may well be unmatched for a generation. So it is with Harold Pinter's absurdist gem No Man's Land, a work that’s always best played by starry knights. Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud first created Pinter’s curious curmudgeons during the National Theatre's residency at the Old Vic in 1975. Today the honours fall to Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart who again re-unite to lead an evening of theatre that remains as perplexing as it is entertaining.

In their twilight years Hirst (Stewart) and Spooner (McKellen) chance upon each other in a pub on Hampstead Heath before retiring to Hirst's nearby mansion. We learn that both men have literary achievements of varying pedigree, but while the wealthy and patrician Hirst still exudes an air of the virile masculinity that that made him an accomplished ladies’ man in years past, Spooner, the shabbier by far, is a down on his luck gay poet who spends his time earning a few bob collecting glasses in another local pub and spying on clandestine homosexual liaisons on the Heath. As the alcohol flows, the bleakness of their respective no man's lands of old age gradually emerges.

It wouldn’t be Pinter without a sinister undertone, injected here by two younger men, Foster and Briggs (Damien Molony and Owen Teale respectively) who also reside with Hirst. Quite what or who they are isn’t defined, though the suggestion that they are poised to prey upon the old man's wealth is never far away.

Amidst this cocktail of comedy and conspiracy, Pinter's prose is a delight. Hirst hates the "solitary shittery" of his decline, whilst Spooner is threateningly taunted as a "minge juice bottler". The bravura of the text is as timely as Stephen Brimson Lewis' exquisite costuming, with the 1970s so perfectly defined that the play could almost be a fusion of Derek and Clive mixed with The Sweeney.

Acclaimed on Broadway (though one wonders how American audiences have ever managed a text so steeped in London's geography and vernacular) Sean Mathias extracts power as much as pathos and frailty from his leading men. There's a hint of Shakespeare in the play's nosings too. Consider in act two how a vulnerable Lear or Gloucester could be being channelled - with the younger men's brutality (think here of Regan’s Cornwall) merely being hinted at. 

For lovers of theatre, drama does not get better than this, especially with both McKellen and Stewart having evolved into latter day screen giants. Freed from the close-up confines of film and TV work the pair are unmissable, with an electrifying chemistry in their interaction

No Man's Land may ultimately remain as unfathomable as Pinter intended, but no matter. Much like a generous measure of one of Hirst's malts (and a 40 year one at that), this production offers performance and dialog and oh, those glorious pauses that merit being swirled around in a heavy glass, savoured and carefully contemplated.


Runs until 17th December
Photo credit: Johan Persson

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