Photo courtesy of National Theatre Live. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart
Those of us who cannot dash off to London, now have the chance to see some of the greatest English language theatrical productions in the world as filmed theatre comes to our local cinemas by satellite.
This version of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, filmed from the Wyndham Theatre in London’s West End is just one of those wonders. It was originally produced at the Old Vic in 1975 starring the “two sirs” John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson and has since toured and been given numerous productions.
In this case, the show was followed by an excellent question and answer period which let us see these actors , also two sirs, who are old friends, going back to their first contact with this play and with the theatre in general. In fact this experience was all the more special for us because it reveals the complicity of the actors, as if it were all taking place in the real home of Patrick Stewart (Hirst), who had just invited Ian McKellen (Spooner) in for a drink and then by accident spilt coffee on his jacket and had to wipe it off with a napkin! “That did happen” said Stewart “but I didn’t think anything of it, I just wiped! “ Of course we are “pissed” adds McKellen so delicately but even when we learn that the characters have just met in a pub in upper crust Hampstead Heath, it doesn’t quite seem possible because of the closeness they exude along with a slightly playful familiarity that feeds the naturalism of their performance style.
Also, we wonder how much Pinter is writing his own destiny into this show we even feel ourselves becoming curious voyeurs, watching through the keyhole on the other side of that beautiful oak door which opens into the rounded space of the library – a prison or a crypt. Soon however the play takes over and as both men inhabit their new bodies and their vocal mannerisms, Harold Pinter, director Sean Mathias and the cast solidly trap us in that room for the next two hours.
The play is a poetic representation of what happens to a mind when it loses its capacity to remember! Call it dementia or what you will, the result is devastating. Loss of memory produces a No Man’s Land of the title: where one notices strange things, but where in fact nothing moves, all is silent, and such silence is important in this play and in Pinter’s work in general. Hirt’s consciousness becomes a place filled with ghosts. And Patrick Stewart as Hirt the wealthy man of letters who needs people round him because he can barely move, is trying to navigate that terrible state of absence created by that which he cannot remember. Sometimes he is paralyzed, sometimes he awakens terrified by the ghosts of the forgotten past that haunt him as vague bits of memory, floating in water or hidden in his photo album, are resurrected as shadows in his mind. Hirt has returned home with Spooner and he sits in his armchair, silently, as the very talkative Spooner tells us his whole life story, about his talents as a poet, his elegant tastes, his bright past as he sips Hirt’s whiskey nonstop while Hirt himself, with a blank look etched on his face, takes huge gulps of alcohol; he is the desperate drowning man, trying to forget he can’t remember!! His ultimate collapse on the ground, unable to stand on his own would seem to signal his end.
However, it is only the sign that the game is changing (the play is so beautifully structured!) as this curious meeting of the two in the pub becomes a power game of class. Lighting effects at those points pinpoint many powerful moments.
Two disturbingly sinister fellows from the street, one a young cocky dandy (Damien Molony) and the other one a bit older sporting more muscle and a deadly stare (Owen Teale ) both with cockney accents, appear from the sidelines. In few words, they suggest they are in fact serving Hirt while they taunt and even threaten the talkative Spooner treating him as the poor worthless intruder whom they suspect is out to replace their influence on the wealthy intellectual for whom they work, perhaps in the hope of bettering their own lower class status. They warn Spooner to watch it, and thus a class based power threat is launched out of nowhere…apparently. As they force the nimble worded Spooner into groveling for a job , even trying to sell his qualities to Hirt who cannot even hear this poor poet who is supposedly his friend because Hirt forgets who he is!! Director Sean Mathias has Hirt sitting like a king in an armchair while his two man servants standing behind him stage right, form the portrait of the master on the throne, supported by his apparent body guards who will prevent anyone from getting in the masters way or from replacing them. Spooner is projected into the humiliating posture of a slave begging for consideration as the one who has literary competence while those who are pushing him out have no talents at all, they are ambiguous creatures, servants and bullies, threatening and protective but assuring their status in Hirt’s house. Strong cruel, tough guys, even the one with the groomed exterior has the aura of a nasty person but they both appear to be bought by the rich intellectual who has lost his mind, and is thus incapable of judging the value of these fellows . However, Hirt is able to pay for their loyal muscle so they will protect and serve him in all ways. The powergames then become playful sketches of vaudeville inspired theatre that punctuate moments between the two writers as Hirt , the weatlthy one, dredges up a long ago betrayal with Spooners wife and then Spooner, silent the whole time gets his own back by reverting to more theatrical word play. Naturalism reverts to burlesque as Pinter paints a disturbing picture of social relations that reveal the power of money and the totalitarian instincts at work in British society.
The subtlety of this text captures the complexity of relations in this social hierarchy and one might say they even suggest the background for the recent Brexit vote which took most of Britain by surprise. This is certainly an important play where the theatrical relations based on personal disintegration of the mind, become deeply symbolic messages embedded in daily British life.
A magnificent experience for the audience and a powerful experience for the actors I’m sure. If you have not seen this performance, catch it next time it tours in your area.
No Man’Land by Harold Pinter, directed by Sean Mathias
With Patrick Stewart as Hirt and Ian McKellen as Spooner
Lighting: Peter Kaczorowski
Set and Costume designs: Stephen Brimson Lewis