This production of Harold Pinter’s drawing-room puzzler returns to its spiritual home in the West End after a long time traversing America (originally in rep with Waiting for Godot in 2013) and this year the UK. During this time the stars of the show, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, have been conquering hearts across the internet as the world’s favourite bromance, providing an object lesson in how to get young people interested in mid-century absurdist drama: pose with Elmo on Broadway, go sightseeing together and generally just be adorable on Twitter.
In terms of marketing, No Man’s Land needs all the levity it can get: this vision of the purgatory of two aging men of letters is obscure, threatening and remarkably bleak even for Pinter, with no quarter given to the audience into getting a handle on the unremitting obscurity of it all. The plot such as can be described finds McKellen’s old poet Spooner unannounced in the palatial residence of Stewart’s Hirst. They may or may not have met before. Spooner may or may not have ulterior motives. The two old queens exchange barbs with occasional relish and occasional hopelessness, like gamblers at once enjoying themselves and aware of the futility of what they’re doing (“A metaphor! Things are looking up!” sniffs McKellen enjoyably at one point). The title is well-chosen.
For those who recognise McKellen as an authoritative wizard, they may be shocked to see him as a shabby, shuffling ponytailed figure in an ill-fitting suit and quite ill at ease, never comfortable in his surroundings and with movements that suggest desperation ever about to break out to the surface. His reactions to the tiny, potentially threatening, movements of other characters are those of a practised master of theatrical subtlety even as he enjoys hamming up elsewhere. For Stewart’s part you may be given whiplash by the genuine haunted pain on his face alternating with sudden clubbish enthusiasm for his a lost world of Oxford tutors and beautiful women. His silences are beautifully timed; director Sean Mathias understands the rhythms of nothingness that make Pinter’s work so distinctive, and the interplay between the two theatrical chums is as comfortable and intuitive as you will ever see on the stage.
Supporting performances from Damian Molony and Owen Teale as Hirst’s entourage are pitched perfectly somewhere between camp dilettante and potentially violent thug – Teale especially, for fans of his Game of Thrones hardnut Alliser Thorne, retains the kind of gravel-flecked baritone that would warn off an army, still less an old has-been like Spooner. All are surrounded by Stephen Brimson Lewis’ superb design, which carries echoes of the Pantheon or perhaps a supremely tasteful morgue, as if the afterlife has already overtaken these debonair ghosts.
As for what it’s about, who knows? There are hints of seventies malaise, the deadly silence of the closeted gay lifestyle, a longing for a lost Old England. There may be a warning against alcoholism in there; certainly your kidneys will wince at the seemingly bottomless capacity to imbibe on show here. Amid all the acid absurdism and meandering periphrasis Pinter is certainly concerned with the long-term effects of a loveless life on the heart, though in the perpetual twilight behind Hirst’s curtains there is little hope for it. But watching Pinter for meaning is like trying to fish with a machinegun: difficult and missing the point. You watch Pinter for the mood, for the little moments of something indefinable beneath the words. This is theatre of the unsaid, and you will rarely see it better done than here.
No Man’s Land is playing at Wyndham’s Theatre until 17 December. Tickets can be bought here at nomanslandtheplay.com
Photo: Johan Persson