Take two giants of British acting, a Nobel Prize-winning playwright, plus a celebrated director – and you get a lot of expectation in one auditorium.
Sean Mathias’ production starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart comes to London from New York where it received rave reviews, and it doesn’t disappoint on any level.
That’s not to say that Harold Pinter’s 1975 absurdist play is an easy ride for the audience. It’s often dense, cryptic and enigmatic. It’s also very funny, but tinged with his trademark underlying menace.
Ian McKellen as Spooner and Patrick Stewart as Hirst in No Man’s Land (pictures by Johan Persson)
The action takes place in the palatial house of Hirst (Stewart), who returns home with Spooner (McKellen), a chap he has met in a local Hampstead pub. Both men claim to be poets. As the evening progresses and the whisky flows, their conversation descends into bickering. The tension increases at the arrival of Foster (Damien Molony) and Briggs (Owen Teale), two men in the employ of Hirst, seemingly as secretary, servant and/or bodyguard.
Spooner spends the night and the pair’s game of one-upmanship continues in the morning. Hirst mistakes, or pretends to mistake, his guest for a former friend at Oxford. Spooner is more than happy to play along and soon they are reminiscing about shared sexual conquests.
It’s a challenging piece of work, but utterly compelling thanks to the hypnotic poetry of Pinter’s script and first-rate performances.
Everyone is good: Stewart is the picture of melancholy, while Damien Molony and Owen Teale are sinister as Hirst’s mysterious associates. But it’s McKellen who gives the masterclass. Every tic, every expression, every fumble with his hat or coat is carefully measured. You simply can’t take your eyes off him.
When he made his entrance, one trouser cuff was caught in his sock and I became a little obsessed by this. Was it by accident or an ingenious extra detail?
It was still there at the start of the second act.
No Man’s Land is at Wyndham’s Theatre until 17 December