No Man's Land
Sean Matthias production of Pinter's great play started at Berkley Rep in California, played on Broadway, has just been on a UK tour and now lands on Charing Cross Road. It has been worth the wait because in the hands of two masters, Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart, you're unlikely to see a more polished revival.
The last time this partnership was in the West End was in a production of Waiting for Godot which, though a huge hit, was unbalanced by the leads with the duo descending totally into Music Hall turns. Here, director Sean Mathias restrains their temptations to brilliant effect. It's a Rolls-Royce masterclass in the craft of acting, in how you can make every word sing and every gesture matter and you realise you are witnessing the ease that comes with 5 decades of experience. Less experienced hands could never mine the depths which these two manage to do here.
We encounter two elderly men in an imposing drawing room of a north London house. One has invited the other back from the pub. Hirst (Stewart), the host, appears to have been a celebrated writer but is now holed up with two sinister retainers - the brutish Briggs (Owen Teale) and the cocky young Spiv, Foster (Damien Molony), both spot-on performances. The guest, Spooner (McKellen), is a dusty, shambolic figure in crumpled pin stripes, a minor poet. They start on the drinks cabinet.
McKellen perfectly captures the sly obsequiousness of Spooner, how he never lets go of his old raincoat because he might have to take his leave. He has the loquaciousness of the barfly, revelling in his verbosity and mercurial humour and inveigling his way into the attentions of others. “I have never been loved and from this I derive my strength”, he remarks, quite accurately.
Hirst is the opposite, an oracular presence, perched on his Chesterfield like a king with Foster and Briggs at his side. Stewart of course has a march on other actors here because of that famous voice, which immediately commands attention. His strength here though is in capturing the gnawing despair underlying the urbane exterior. This is a frightened man.
Like all Pinter you take from it what you bring, he makes you do the work. One can wonder for example whether Spooner is Hirst's alter ego, what he could have become, how he might have ended up. Similarly, Hirst's present condition, artistically dried up and hermetically sealed from the world, whilst being guarded by two self-serving associates, is the nightmare of every successful artist. How, after achieving great success, and as a consequence needing seclusion, you can you still meaningfully connect with real experience.
All the production elements couldn't be more perfect, especially Stephen Brimson Lewis' wonderful costumes, the ‘70s suits and Cuban-heels perfectly draw out the raffishness of the two servants. The central image too of a classically imposing salon, set under a canopy of green branches, billowing in the sunlight, extenuates the metaphor of art vs life.
The echoes of Beckett too are very strong. Here we are as humans, trapped in our own bodies, in a cage largely of our own making, repeating ourselves, deluding ourselves, goading each other with games merely to pass the time, and all the time, we never move on. Making stasis dramatic is what Pinter does here and that is the achievement of a true master.