BY BILLY SUTER
SOME have interpreted it as a haunting ghost story, while others have labelled it as an ode to ageing, reflection, legacy or dementia. There are those who view it as a glimpse at isolation in the limbo between life and death.
By turns bleak and comic, always enigmatic, and increasing in menace, Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land is a classic piece for the thinking theatre lover.
It is a play that allows its audience to interpret it whichever way they wish as it probes the interaction between two ageing men – one infinitely more successful than the other – and the more affluent man’s two younger, mysterious sidekicks.
In this recent London production, reuniting director Sean Mathias and seasoned performers Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart – a trio last teamed in 2009 for a stage production of Waiting For Godot – the drama is lent added sparkle through superlative performances, most notably by McKellen.
Described by one London reviewer as focusing on “an ante-room of death”, No Man’s Land was first staged in April 1975, a year after it was written. That first, much-praised production teamed Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir John Gielgud in the lead roles, and was staged at the Old Vic, then transferred to the Wyndhams Theatre in July that year.
The latest production of the play opened at the Wyndhams late last year and ended a run there on December 14, after success on Broadway.
Filmed for the National Theatre Live
series of plays, that are shown live in cinemas worldwide and soon after at other cinemas, No Man’s Land is certainly worth a visit for theatre lovers, and particularly fans of Stewart and McKellen.
Also, there is the bonus of a short feature on the making of the new stage production as well as a fascinating question-and-answer session with the cast and director after the show. The only gripe is having to sit through a 20-minute interval. Ugh.
The play opens on a fine set depicting an elegant circular room dominated by a drinks cabinet and a few chairs. In spite of the room’s size and impressive glass ceiling, suggesting an escape with its glimpse of moving treetops, the set exudes a sense of claustrophobia, the room’s imposing pannelled walls almost suggesting a prison or a padded cell.
It’s here that we meet the tipsy home-owner, Hirst (Stewart), who is serving a drink to the more dishevelled, unshaven Spooner (McKellen), a man he has met on Hampstead Heath and has invited home for a nightcap after some serious pub drinking.
The men become increasingly inebriated as they hit the whiskey and vodka harder, Hirst becoming more and more puzzling as Spooner holds forth with a flow of wonderful dialogue delivered with panache and a dazzling array of gestures and expressions by McKellen.
We get to learn both men are poets. We ponder whether or not they have known each other before. We see them yo-yo from being witty and nostalgic to mysterious and melancholy, never fully sure if what they are telling us is real or imagined.
The enigma of the situation is exacerbated by the arrival of Hirst’s henchmen, the burly and often aggressive Briggs (Owen Teale) and the younger, cocky Foster (Damien Molony), who may or may not be Hirst’s son.
Both take a dislike to the eccentric stranger in the house, who, in the second act, gets a shot at one-upmanship in a delicious scene that has both older men discussing romantic conquests.
It all builds to an uncomfortable finale, open to interpretation, and if you prefer your play plottings all neat and clearly signposted you might find it somewhat frustrating. That said, there is much to delight in the performances and the prize Pinter dialogue.
The four scheduled screenings at Umhlanga’s Cinema Nouveau, Gateway, are at 7.30pm on Saturday (Jan 21), 2.30pm on Sunday (Jan 22) and then at 7.30pm next Wednesday (Jan 25) and Thursday (Jan 26).