If you’ve ever doubted that Harold Pinter deserved his 2005 Nobel Prize, take yourself to see Sean Mathias’ production of No Man’s Land with the duo of theatrical knights, Sir Ian McKellen (as Spooner) and Sir Patrick Stewart (as Hirst) at Wyndham’s Theatre. Forty-one years ago, at the same venue, another pair of knights, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, starred in Peter Hall’s original production of this, Pinter’s most poetic play; and I remember Michael Gambon as Hirst in 2008, directed by Rupert Goold, then our most promising young director.
In 1975 the play was an utter mystery, at least to me. I missed the cricketing allusions in the names of the four characters – though now that I know them (thanks to a marvellously detailed and imaginative programme), I can’t really see their relevance, except to the cricket-obsessed playwright playing a pleasurable, not too important game with his audience. At the time, I remember thinking that No Man’s Land was a Beckettian parable about old age, and the beautiful Hampstead drawing room actually the ominous ante-room to the grave. Though it’s been a long time since I saw the original Richardson-Gielgud production, I don’t remember the play being as funny as the current production, or its enigmas as (relatively) easy to follow.
Pinter was very big on what he called données, facts or notions he could seize on, which gave him a starting point. The données of No Man’s Land seem to be (but, of course, may very well not be) that on Hampstead Heath, Hirst, an elegantly dressed, successful man of letters, picks up Spooner, a slightly seedy, Michael Foot lookalike, failed poet, who works as a pot-boy in a Chalk Farm pub. He is wearing ratty tennis shoes, a tatty suit, carries a dirty-looking mac, and sports a corduroy cap, a CND badge (I think – even from my wonderful seat in row F I couldn’t quite make it out) and has tied the back of his wispy grey hair into the too-optimistic beginnings of a ponytail.
Hirst takes Spooner back to his multi-million pound Hampstead house, and pours him a whisky, asking “As it is?” And, indeed, Spooner takes it – and most of the rest of the bottle – neat. “As it is” was Pinter’s verbal donnée for this play, and is, I suppose, its theme – taking life as it is, a series of things that happens to each of us before our inevitable deaths. Even Stephen Brimson Lewis’s magnificent set, a curving, coffered wood-panelled room with a single floor-to-ceiling window, furnished only with a Chinoiserie sideboard in front of some shelves, a comfortable upholstered armchair, two side tables and two William IV chairs, hints that it’s the waiting-room for death: at each side you can just see the skeleton, the naked plaster-and-lath on which the panelling rests. Equal attention has been paid to Brimson Lewis’s costumes: I recognised the 1970s Blades-like suits, made by Rupert Lycett-Green, and the Deborah Clare-type shirt worn by Foster, because I owned both myself.
In the first half it seems to be clear that Spooner and Hirst have not met before this encounter on the Heath near Jack Straw’s Castle. Both are far too old to be there for the normal reason of seeking gay sex – which yields a few amusing lines of dialogue. At Hirst’s house they begin drinking. Hirst seems to finish a bottle of vodka, before asking Spooner to pour him a whisky from the bottle he’s clutching along with his mac and own glass. The two of them get through an astonishing amount of whisky, before Spooner finds and hits another bottle in the sideboard. Hirst collapses on all fours, and leaves the room. If there were a drama prize for bladder control, the two of them would certainly share it.
Enter at this point a fit young man, with shiny Beatles hair and sideboards down to his shapely jaws: Forster (Damien Molony), dressed in lovingly chosen, upmarket Carnaby Street gear, and speaking in a distinctly non-Hampstead London accent. He’s in turn menacing and fey, demanding to know who Spooner is and what he’s doing there. Foster says he works and lives in the Hampstead house, and then introduces Briggs (Owen Teale), a shaggily bearded bit of rough. Briggs has tattoos on his hands– isn’t this slightly anachronistic, I wondered? Aren’t “love/hate” knuckle tattoos from a later era?
Briggs and Foster are very physical with each other, perhaps pointing the way to the slight whiff of homoeroticism between Spooner and Hirst in the second half, when they suddenly appear to share a common past – Oxford, London clubs, weddings, cricket matches, picnics on the lawn and other social events. Or are they playing a new game, where Hirst claims to have cuckolded Spooner, and Spooner outrages Hirst by insisting that he was regularly fellated by a respectable female friend of Hirst? Is it a power struggle? Hirst seems to have all the cards in his hand, but then he seems to lose the advantage to Spooner’s imaginative narration of what would have seemed sexual perversion in their 1930s youth. This scene is one of McKellen’s triumphs, as his facial expressions during Stewart’s boastful, wounding tirade, vary from alarmed to sceptical, but without ever deciding the issue of whether what Hirst is claiming is history or fantasy. Every once in a while, there’s a wonderful, strange sound effect (by Adam Cork), but these only ratchet up the atmosphere, and don’t tip the balance in favour of fact or fancy.
Pinter has written the piece so that each of the actors has monologues, but the silent reactions of the other player are as significant as what is being said. It is stagecraft as almost pure poetry. And though Pinter seems to be playing – toying – with the audience, it’s two hours as full of comedy as of jeopardy and unease. It is a great play, and McKellen and Stewart give historic performances.