It is safe to say that No Man’s Land is, by no means, Harold Pinter’s most famous play. Ostensibly, it is about age and memory following two characters who may or may not be old friends and the richer’s invasive staff. As is characteristic of Pinter, the action takes place all in one location, with the actors flitting in and out amongst tense pauses and verbose dialogue. However, I cannot help but feel that No Man’s Land lacks the constriction and engagement of its more famous siblings and, on this alone, it struggles.
The single location is a large room in a posh house in North West London. Bek Palmer’s set characterises this impeccably. It is a room of books with few places to sit and strange objects looming down on the actors from high shelves that encapsulates Hirst, the man of letters who resides within it. Not only this but Andy Grange’s lighting expertly casts long, looming shadows of each of the plays. The emphasis on entrapment, monotony and ominous presence is framed by every element of the design.
The actors within it are equally captivating. Moray Treadwell’s Hirst is stunning, his performance is visceral and physical, he convulses intoxicated and carries himself with all the pomposity the character requires.
The younger men, Foster (Joel Macey) and Briggs (Graham O’Mara), give equally convincing, if hyper-theatrical performances. Macey is suitably foppish, charming and insecure, circling through the multitude of discordant character beats Pinter has required of him effortlessly. Eerie in every step, O’Mara gives an ominous performance, punctuated by a practised stillness. It is he who uses Grange’s excellent lighting to its fullest effect, regularly pausing so his shadow looms across the other actors.
It is Nicholas Gasson, as Spooner, who really steals the show. While he carries the sheer volume of the increasingly wordy speeches (this play has a lot, even for a Pinter) he justifies each one with character. The performance is expertly motivated. The audience sees the entire play through Spooner’s eyes. One of the most compelling moments in the play is when Treadwell and Gasson go head to head about their sexual conquests. They simply light up the stage, every reaction and delivery timed expertly.
Michael Cabot’s direction is serviceable. It is clear that a lot of thought has gone into the characters and their relationships. I cannot fault him for providing a good restaging of Pinter’s initial work. Despite this, I felt the direction lacked a sense of the reimagining. One of the joys of theatre is seeing dusty plays such as this recontextualised and given new vigour for a fresh audience. Yet a dusty play is exactly what No Man’s Land feels like. Four men standing around reciting long speeches in convoluted phrasing more poetic than dramatic. Moments of genuine magic seem to drown in the recurring metaphors and long pauses. This may be a defining feature of Pinter’s style but it feels vastly out of step with modern theatrical sensibilities.
Whenever I see a revival, I do find myself asking: why now? What does this play contribute to the modern discourse? Is it entertaining? Does it hold a mirror up to something in our society, something different than it did initially, perhaps? Why should an audience care enough to listen to what it has to say? And unfortunately for No Man’s Land it gives me no answers. It feels out of step and tired, with no sense of the contemporary or the human as a frame of reference. It fails to make itself relevant.
No Man’s Land is playing Hull Truck Theatre until 14 September and is touring England through 2 November. For dates and tickets, visit London Classic Theatre.