Following their hit run on Broadway, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart (they last appeared together in Waiting for Godot back in 2009) returned to the West End stage in Harold Pinter’s NO MAN’S LAND, captured live to cinemas from Wyndham’s Theatre, London as part of the wonderful NT Live series. The production ended its season at the Wyndham on December 17, 2016.
Pinter’s play transfers wonderfully from stage to screen , is clearly and thoughtfully shot with terrific use of close up at certain points ( for example when Patrick Stewart as Spooner crumbles in despair at one point in the first act, or the tension at his crawling exit. Or McKellan’s face when Hirst admits to seducing Spooner’s wife).
Superbly directed by Sean Mathias and with a stellar cast this is a magnificent, tense production.
Pinter’s play is extremely wordy, with some strong language at one point, and you have to pay very close attention to the text. Both Mathias with his sure direction, and the great cast do this and they catch the pace and rhythm of the text, especially with some of the long, tricky monologues spoken by Spooner and Hirst.
The play is apparently deceptively simple and nothing much really happens – or does it? Is it all Hirst’s drunken imagining? ( The cast of four, particularly HIrst and Spooner, drink like fishes , downing umpteen glasses of assorted alcoholic beverages.
Nothing is what it seems – or is it?!
The rotunda like set design by Stephen Brimson Lewis is glorious – one door allowing entry to Spooner’s posh, elegant circular office featuring a couple of chairs, a huge bar, and the barely visible skylight and the trees outside.
In the first act it is night, and is Hirst ‘just ‘ drunk and confused or descending into dementia? Or is he maybe terminally ill?
In the second half it is a lovely day and at first Hirst is ebullient, and greets Spooner as a long lost friend. But the oddness , uneasiness and the questions continue …
The plot of this gripping rather convoluted play is essentially that one summer’s evening, two ageing writers, Hirst and Spooner, meet in a Hampstead pub and continue their drinking into the night at Hirst’s stately house nearby.
As the pair become increasingly drunk and their interwoven stories increasingly unbelievable, the lively conversation soon turns into a twisted power game, further complicated by the return home of the rather sinister Briggs (Owen Teale) and Foster (Damien Maloney ) who ooze menace .Camera closeups reveal the tattoos and large signet ring that Brigs wears.
NO MAN’S LANDis set in the 1970’s – Lewis’ costume designs for Briggs and Foster and their hairdos make this clear. This, however, is a scenario that could just as well play out today.
The play. is a sort of psychological thriller – who will apparently crumble and collapse?Who will beg for a job? Is anyone really what they appear? Can we believe anything anyone says, when they seem so two faced?!
Patrick Stewart as Hirst provides a finely nuanced haunting portrait of an ageing, reclusive man of letters who invites into Spooner, played by Ian McKellan, into his home, a literary-minded fellow and would be minor poet of far less success and means. Both men turn the tables on each other and there is a terrific duel of wit and words at times.
Briggs and Foster also have monologues where we learn more about them and it is perhaps possibly delicately hinted that that there might be a homoerotic attraction between Briggs and Foster.
Hirst comes across as being caught in a, “no man’s land… which remains forever, icy and silent”, a land that serves perhaps as a place in limbo before his death.
Peter Hall’s iconic 1975 premiere production, starring Ralph Richardson as Hirst and John Gielgud as Spooner, is still talked about today. This production is also, in its own way. outstanding.
Running time – allow two and a half hours. The film includes one interval and a ‘behind the scenes’ short documentary before the play starts and a Q & A session afterwards.
The NT Live screenings of NO MAN’S LAND will screen at selected cinemas from 4th February.