September 19, 2016
When it comes to seeing theatre live on the West End stage, there are a number of things that can tempt people to buy tickets. Often it’s the playwright, in this case the late Harold Pinter, but in other cases it’s the actors involved, in this case the double header of Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen, reprising roles they’d played on Broadway in 2014. Pinter, Stewart and McKellen; what more could anybody want?
It goes without saying that when it comes to the acting on display, No Man's Land at the Wyndham's Theatre is absolutely top drawer. Two Knights of the Realm trod the boards on Saturday night and rolled back the years; neither McKellen nor Stewart can claim to be as spritely as they have been over the decades but from their performances, you wouldn’t know it. Stewart spends a couple of minutes crawling on all fours across the stage, whilst McKellen is also on the floor on more than one occasion – their sheer joie de vivre is a joy to experience, their passion obvious. The two men are great friends and it has to be said that their chemistry shines through at Wyndham’s Theatre.
That isn’t to say this play is a joy from start to finish, quite the opposite in fact. It’s only really by the end that you can appreciate the beginning and even then, as the actors take their bows, you’ll be scratching your head and wondering what it was all about. Set in a sparse living room with a wooden floor, a rug, a few chairs and a drinks cabinet, No Man’s Land sets out to explore very little in terms of literal visual storytelling. McKellen’s Spooner, a dishevelled poet in dirty suit and Converse, drunkenly chats to Stewart’s well-to-do Hirst, who is the complete opposite of the person with whom he is talking. As the two men chat, nothing really appears to be said at all – the sentences are unnecessarily verbose and the entire world is somewhat stagnant. This is of course what Pinter was aiming for, No Man’s Land being an obvious clue as to the destination (or lack thereof) for these two men. As the first half draws to a close, two men appear (Owen Teale and Damien Molony) and claim to be in the employ of Hirst, who suddenly regards Spooner as a stranger and once more we are plunged into confusion. Just what is going on here?
Sean Mathias directs in a strained manner which serves the text well and allows the audience to disentangle the plot for themselves. There’s not a lot that Pinter gives to aid you as to the meaning of this work, but what he does offer is enough to leave you pondering as you leave the theatre. The next day you’ll latch onto another part of No Man’s Land that you have recalled and previously ignored the day before… Maybe that was the point of the play? Or perhaps it was that? In essence, the journey is to be enjoyed and not dissected until afterwards. Let it wash over you and sure, you’ll be in No Man’s Land yourself for much of the play but give it a bit of time to seep into your subconscious and all will eventually be revealed.
Teale and Molony clearly love every minute of being on stage with Stewart and McKellen and who can blame them? Such an acting masterclass isn’t offered every day and although the two can’t reach the heady heights of their A-list compatriots, they are still very good in their roles. Make no mistake about it however, this is Stewart and McKellen on top form and when they wax lyrical with one another in the second half, there’s nowhere else in London that you’d want to be. No Man’s Land is certainly not for everyone but there’s a lot to be said for a theatrical experience that offers an experience like no other and that is exactly what Pinter delivered. It may not be perfect but over forty years after he wrote it, there’s still nothing quite like it out there.
No Man's Land runs until 17th December and tickets are available here.
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