No Man’s Land
By Harold Pinter
Directed by Sean Mathias
Set and costume by Stephen Brimson Lewis
Wyndham’s Theatre, London
Friday 9th September 2016
Ian McKellan – Spooner
Patrick Stewart – Hirst
Owen Teale – Briggs, servant to Hirst
Damien Molony – Foster, apprentice and housekeeper to Hirst
This is a transfer of the Broadway Production of 2013 to 2014, and arrives in London after a provincial tour. It fits a Broadway drama template too. Small cast. One set. Put all the money into major star names in the lead roles. And stars don’t come more stellar than Captain Picard and Gandalf. A survey in the 1980s concluded that Captain Kirk was one of the five most recognised faces on the planet, and Captain Picard can’t be far behind.
Pinter’s 1974 play is notoriously enigmatic. Hirst (Patrick Stewart) is a filthy rich alcoholic who lives in style, presumably in Hampstead. Spooner, who at first is an anonymous poet, has met him in a Hampstead pub (or possibly hanging around Hampstead Heath) and has been invited back for more drinks. A stranger invited back? A cast of four? There are echoes of The Caretaker, except that while alcohol is underplayed in that, it’s played in full here, and like Pinter in the mid 1970s, we are now moving in a different social circle.
At the start of Act one, Spooner (Ian McLellan) is clad in baggy suit and plimsolls, and is extremely garrulous, while Hirst (Patrick Stewart) is taciturn with one word answers. They consume a vast amount of alcohol in a short time. We meet the servant pair, and Hirst crawls away to bed. The servants are threatening, but Hirst re-emerges in his dressing gown. After more whisky, Hirst and servants retire, locking Spooner in the room. Interval.
Spooner, Foster, Briggs, Hirst
At this point, my reaction was so negative that I was trying to remember if I’d ever given a play a one star review before. Even though we were in the front row of the circle, both stars had been under-projecting. While both exude quality in every nuanced expression and movement, I thought the play itself terminally dull. I didn’t want to see one more glass of whisky tossed back, and however brilliant the inebriated staggers were, I had seen enough of them. I looked at the programme and saw how both our stars and the director had seen the 1974 production (Gielgud and Richardson) and loved it so much they wanted to do it in 2013 and were thrilled to be reprising it. Why? I asked myself. I knew it had been in rep with Waiting for Godot in America, and wished so much they were doing that instead. My goodness, I so over-rated Pinter in the 60s and 70s, I said. He has not held up to the passing of time.
Spooner (Ian McKellan) at the bar
Fortunately, the play flies at the start of the second half. McKellan wakes up on the carpet, and the burly Briggs (Owen Teale) serves him a champagne and scrambled eggs breakfast. In strict contrast to part one, McKellan is now speechless as Briggs gives the ultimately boring complex directions to Bolsover Street. This is a marvellous double act, both in Owen Teale’s endless explanation and in Ian McKellan’s gamut of facial expressions.
Act 2: Hirst reminisces (Patrick Stewart) while Spooner (Ian McKellan) reacts
Hirst, i.e. Patrick Stewart, comes in wearing a formal pinstripe suit, and greets Spooner as an old pal from 1930s Oxford, Did you have a good war? he asks. The centrepiece of the play, which would be best presented as a first rate series of just three x five to ten minute sketches, is the conversation. Hirst is now the garrulous one, and Spooner is completely dumb, but with facial reactions that are extremely funny. We never know if they genuinely knew each other or it’s just confusion, though Hirst claims to have had an affair with Spooner’s wife, Emily. I’d judge from Spooner’s reactions that it’s supposed to be true they knew each other. There follows a series of reminiscences of sexual shenagians, a couple of which Spooner bounces back at him. This is all fabulous writing and acting.
I did wonder about a 1970s Two Ronnies sketch from the same era, where they play two old men in a London club. They reminisce in much the same way, until one says (something like) “Tell me, Colonel, when was the last time you … er … had a woman?” The Colonel shakes his head wistfully and says, “1945.” “That’s a long time ago,” says the other. “Not really, ” says the Colonel, glancing at his watch, “It’s only 19.57 now.”
I wonder which came first? Pinter or Ronnie Barker? Barker at least has a punch line.
The end: Spooner appeals for a job
After that wonderful dialogue, the play reverts to enigmatic and supposedly meaningful, and sadly gets dull again. At the end, Spooner has returned to garrulous, asking for a job, while stony faced Hirst, flanked by henchmen stares at him. All three are motionless. I really didn’t like most of the writing. There’s no plot to criticize.
At the end, I’d say our two theatral knights got a 60-70% standing ovation. Far more than much better recent RSC productions get. That’s an American trait too. It’s not a case of them being “wonderful for their age” because age has not withered either of them. Both are as brilliant as when I saw them ten years ago.
At £65 for reasonable, but not great seats, you have to compare the RSC or National Theatre with casts of twenty-five, full music, a live band, dancing, changing sets and costumes at a similar or lower price.
Yes, these are two of the greatest actors you will ever see, but no one at the RSC is below excellent. Earlier in the week we paid just £20 to see Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour at the National Theatre … six women actors and a band and flat out high energy from start to finish. They didn’t get that kind of ovation. I guess being extremely famous helps. Yes, the cast were very good, and it’s an enormous privilege to see Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart, but it’s the weakest Pinter play I’ve seen. I used to think the enigma and pauses made you fill in and think, but you have to have some sympathy for the characters and involvement with the story first. For me it was a case of The (Pinter) Emperor has no clothes. Why, oh why, is it so highly rated? I gave Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour three stars, so this has to be two. Note that I am really out on a limb here. No one agrees with my rating!
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID
Domenic Cavendish, The Telegraph *****
Benedict Nightingale, Evening Standard *****
Neil Downdon, Londonist *****
Michael Billington, The Guardian ****
Paul Taylor, The Independent ****
Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times ****
Christopher Hart, Sunday Times ****
Michael Arditti, Express ****
Mark Shenton, The Stage ****
Tony Peters, Radio Times ****
Susannah Clapp, Observer ***
Matt Truman, What’s On Stage ***
The Garrick is near unique in old West End Theatres in having sufficient decent loos.
LINKS ON THIS BLOG
The Broken Heart, by John Ford, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 2015 (Bassanes)
Patrick Stewart’s superb Chichester performances in Macbeth, and as Malvolio in Twelfth Night pre-date this blog.