I remember when No Man’s Land first hit the stage back in 1975. It was the first new Pinter to appear after I first started reading him and seeing his plays. We’d read The Caretaker at school. I’d seen The Collection and The Lover as an amateur production in 1973. I was impressed with Pinter’s gifts as a director over the years, enjoying his London productions of the Simon Gray plays Otherwise Engaged, The Rear Column, Close of Play and Quatermaine’s Terms. But it wasn’t until four years ago that I actually first saw a professional production of a Pinter play – Betrayal, at the Sheffield Crucible. There’s a lot of ground to make up.
That’s one of the reasons I leapt at the chance to book to see No Man’s Land when it first came on sale many months ago. I always think of it in terms of Gielgud and Richardson (both of whom I was lucky to see in other productions) and it struck me that the casting of Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart was about as darn perfect as it could get. So, given the fact that Sir Patrick was off sick (forbidden to take to the stage by his doctor) with a throat infection, I’m surprised how well the whole audience (ourselves included) took the news that the role of Hirst would be played by Mr Andrew Jarvis. No pressure on him, then. But sometimes having an understudy in the role can really spice up the entire performance of the play. It’s not going to go precisely the same way that it normally does, with all four regular members of the cast on board. There will be changes – everyone will have to think on their feet a bit more. There’s a seat-of-pants edge to it.
But first: how does the play stand the test of time forty years or so since it was written? Extremely well, in my opinion. Perhaps more than most Pinter plays, it’s not obvious what’s happening. Usually, I think the best way to take Pinter is at face value. Don’t try to read “a meaning” into what you see and hear – the meaning is no more, or less, than what is acted on the stage. Hirst lives near Hampstead Heath and he appears to have met Spooner whilst out walking. Spooner has come back to his place to join him for some drinks. They’re both arts aficionados, and seem to have a lot in common. Spooner is talkative, Hirst taciturn. They both drink vast quantities of whisky. Eventually (drunk? defeated?) Hirst crawls out of the room. Briggs and Foster, two younger men, come in and take part in an elaborate conversation with Spooner, involving hinted relationships and veiled threats. As the first act curtain falls, it looks as though Foster is going to make a move towards Spooner which might be one of physical or sexual violence; or maybe medical intervention.
The more I think about the play, the more I feel that Hirst and Spooner are imprisoned in some form of institution. Spooner insists to Hirst that he is a free man, which causes Hirst to reply: “it’s a long time since we had a free man in this house.” Spooner is locked in the room all night – doctor’s orders, says Briggs. Hirst threatens to dismiss Briggs, but he won’t leave, because he doesn’t have the authority. Briggs and Foster insist that Hirst goes on his morning walk. Hirst’s animated second act recollections of old days with Spooner, Emily, Bunty, Stella, Arabella and Rupert, whilst on the surface seem real and affectionate, are clearly the product of an unbalanced brain. To what extent Spooner simply goes along with it, or is equally befuddled, is a moot point. The text defines “no man’s land” as a place “which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older but which remains forever, icy and silent.” That could be a definition of Hirst’s house; it could be a definition of the workings of a failed, unwell mind. In any case, I don’t think the “take it as face value” approach works for this play. I’m sure it has a much greater hidden significance.
This riveting production is directed by Sean Mathias with a strong regard for the play’s sense of claustrophobia. On entering the auditorium you are met with a strangely disturbing, overly artificial, moving projection onto the front curtain of Hampstead Heath trees, flickering and glistening in the wind and the movement of the birds. This sets you up for a heightened expectation of uncomfortable detail, which Pinter’s words and Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set deliver in droves. The harsh light that invades the stage from who knows what outside the door pierces the calm darkness of Hirst’s room like a dagger. The tops of the trees shimmer unattainably above the stage, part aspirational, part mocking. Everything is nearly natural – but not quite.
So what of Saturday’s matinee performance, with Andrew Jarvis in place of Patrick Stewart? We’d seen Mr Jarvis once before when he was Duncan in Sheffield’s Macbeth four years ago. He was excellent in that, but in No Man’s Land he truly shone. In those early conversations where you sense that Hirst is losing his way, he was dignified but uncertain, passionate but hollow, engaging in a fencing match with Spooner where the latter did all the work trying to find a way in and he merely had to occasionally parry riposte. When he’s fully lost, and trapped in the no man’s land of a memory of a photograph album, his emptiness is truly emotional. But when he feels like he’s in charge, he has something of the Act One Scene One Lear about him, bestowing grandiose beneficence; and he carries off that wonderful scene where it appears that he and Spooner are old friends with beautiful lightness and rhythm that was a joy to watch. As Sir Ian said at curtain call, although it was no doubt a disappointment not to see Sir Patrick, there was no need for an apology.
Sir Ian, himself, gives one of his fascinatingly detailed performances where every muscle in his face moves with purpose. You always know precisely what it is that Spooner is thinking or feeling by simply watching the visual signs. He’s a wily character; happy to bludge a free drink, never letting go of his coat in case he has to scarper, always on the lookout to exercise his sense of moral or artistic superiority; reliant on his so-called friendship with the pub landlord in the same way that Blanche Dubois depends on the kindness of strangers. Sir Ian takes us on an epic journey of emotions where he tries to blend in with this apparently generous and extravagant household, in the end beseeching Hirst to let him be his secretary; the outsider desperate to be part of the in-crowd. It’s always a privilege to watch his performances; I love his attention to detail and his fantastic timing. In No Man’s Land you have the delight of seeing him take a champagne breakfast. I’ll say no more.
It feels wrong to refer to Briggs and Foster as supporting roles because they’re completely vital to the plot and structure of the play – as well as dishing out the usual menace that we expect in the Pinter landscape. Owen Teale invests Briggs with all the necessary brute force just hovering at the back of the character somewhere; you always sense he’s just a gesture away from something downright evil. This makes it all the more delightful when his character starts to open up – like when he’s reminiscing, in that Pinteresque manner, of the difficulties in getting to and from Bolsover Street, the subtle implications that there may be more to his relationship with Foster than just colleagues, or when he just slips into the subservient role of breakfast and wine waiter; even though the menace is still lurking just beneath the surface. Damien Molony (stunning in The Body of an American a couple of years ago) plays Foster as a trendy, cocky, self-centred man about town; someone who thinks and behaves like they’re more successful in life than they really are; the kind of character who’s recognisable in many a Pinter play. He delivers the end speech of Act One with a chilling sense of danger, and is always a tangibly disconcerting presence whenever on stage.
I thought this was a tremendous production that breathed superb life into the play forty years on. It was also a fantastic example of how, just because the star performer cannot go on, the show nevertheless must, and the understudy can pull off a superb performance. Yes, it’s true – this play is not for everyone; there were a few seats around us in the second act where people hadn’t returned after the interval. I guess if you don’t “get” Pinter’s vision of life, you could find it just too obscure to enjoy. Stick with it though, the second act is hugely rewarding and feels more accessible and understandable than the first act. This production is on until 17th December – and I think if you like your Pinter, you’re going to love this.
Production photographs by Johan Persson