No Man’s Land

An overly-curated glimpse of a special production.

Many years after they first began, I still have doubts about National Theatre Live cinema screenings. On the one hand, they spread high-quality productions to an audience of many thousands – and probably help to make many productions commercially viable. But this take on Pinter’s 1975 play is fronted by two ‘sirs’ with enough box-office weight and critical credibility to make it a guaranteed success, and embarked on a very worthy tour of regional UK theatres.

More to the point, the National Theatre Live screenings offer a more curated experience than live theatre. Close-ups mandate where you look, and when, effectively deciding the details that you notice. It probably offers aesthetic and artistic benefits over sitting in the back row, or watching proceedings from one fixed camera angle, but it also loses a key part of what makes theatre magical: the sense that nobody else has ever seen this exact performance and in this precise way – or ever will.

Thankfully, No Man’s Land is a play that invites many interpretations of a simple story. Spooner (Ian McKellan), a down-on-his-luck pub potman and poet, exploits the hospitality of Hirst (Patrick Stewart), a fading literary giant, over the course of a boozy evening and (ostensibly) genteel morning. The younger Briggs (Owen Teale) and Foster (Damien Molony) also appear with obvious menace and hostility to Spooner. But their role is ambiguous – are they Hirst’s relatives, servants, or criminals preying on a vulnerable old man? Rather than a plot of twists and turns, Pinter sets four highly ambiguous characters on the stage, sowing questions and double-meanings throughout the script. The action may be simple, but you’re never quite sure who these four men are, what they mean or meant to each other, and what they possibly mean when they’re talking.

As you’d expect with a complex and weird play like this, a pre-screening documentary on the production – and post-screening interview featuring the cast with Director Sean Mathias – proves especially rewarding. Even allowing for the fawning or platitudes inevitable when people question bona-fide stars, it was fascinating to learn of the extra pressures on a set designer tackling a small and intimate production, or how Damien Molony watched videos on 1970s Millwall fans to hone his pitch-perfect accent. There was also a delicious moment when McKellan (in his full hail-fellow-well-met persona) dispelled complex theories of why Spooner doesn’t flee the Hampstead house. There’s free food and drink, he pointed out: why would the down-on-his-luck drunk leave?

While McKellan may choose to emphasise No Man’s Land’s simplicity, the text of the play has defied precise interpretation for years. The language is as close as Pinter came to outright poetry – and that’s saying something – while even throwaway lines are weighted with subtext. Whatever about complex takes on the single-room set as an “anteroom to death”, it’s impossible to ignore Michael Billington’s interpretation of No Man’s Land as an expression of Pinter’s own artistic anxieties – especially when the playwright himself took the part of Hirst in a 1992 production.

Seen in this light – a simple story with a symbolic and poignant meaning – Patrick Stewart’s performance also shines alongside McKellan, who has drawn the most critical praise for his performance. Stewart’s Hirst is struggling through a fog of complacency, booze and probably dementia to keep up with the verbal games, even those that he starts. In the sketch-like breakfast table scene, when the impeccably-presented Hirst has his clubman’s fantasy undone by Spooner, his confusion is both comic and tragic.

Spooner is about as unlikely an artistic saviour as one can imagine, by turns parasitic and self serving, conceited and pitifully servile. McKellan may offer the most obvious comedy in this deeply funny play, and his physical performance is superb, but he also offers moments of sincerity, imploring Hirst to engage as an artist with the world outside and arrest his steady decline. Both leads offer comedy and poignancy for the attentive audience.

As with most productions, Molony and Teale yield to the two ‘sirs’ on fine form, but both manage to inject an element of menace and ambiguity. It’s interesting that Molony – who wasn’t even alive during the 1970s – is located excellently in the period by his accent, manerisms, and tailoring. The outfit is just one excellent production element that struck me, and it’s hard to fault the production values anywhere. The kind of efforts needed to realise a large and lavish play have been deployed on a small and intimate effort to great effect. It is a shame, therefore, that overly enthusiastic cinematography denied the Light House Theatre audience the chance to see it in full. For example, it was frustrating to know that the set designers illustrated the passing of time by a ribbon of the Hampstead treescape in Hirst’s window, while barely getting a chance to see it. This broadcast version was an opportunity to catch a glimpse of a quite special production, but I do with that I’d seen it in the flesh.

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