Its easy to overthink Harold Pinter. He frequently bowls a googly, wrong-footing the audience. But what is undisputed is his eloquence and ability at the crease. He takes wickets with an assured stroke of the bat and by putting plenty of spin on his delivery.
Pinter’s interest in cricket seeps into No Man’s Land, which has just opened at the Wyndham’s Theatre, with all four men named after sporting heroes from the game’s “golden age.”
Though, with the amount of booze its chief protagonists put away – Ian McKellen’s garrulous Spooner and Patrick Stewart’s taciturn and charmless Hirst – they’d probably be more at home supping for England rather than playing the game.
McKellen and Stewart seemed to have developed into something of a theatrical double act. The old friends work well together and it’s a delight to see the two actors at the very pinnacle of their profession and unafraid of a challenge.
And what a challenge this is – if only for their bladders. Poor McKellen is onstage for the entire two hour production. He gets a 20-minute break at the interval but during the play he and Stewart consume nearly two bottles of “Scotch” plus stage versions of vodka, brandy and champagne. It doesn’t matter that it’s not alcohol. It’s still liquid – and a lot of it.
In 1975 the original “landmark” production of No Man’s Land featured two other theatrical knights – Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson and, with this play being all about memories – false or real – you can’t help wonder if the memory of the earlier production is influencing the cast and its director, Sean Mathias.
It is set in the very elegant drawing room of a Hampstead house. The oval, wood-panelled walls, cosset their owner, the curtains shut against the outside world. Time could be passing but you’d never know it.
Hirst has picked up Spooner in his local pub on the Heath and brought the old man back to his not so humble abode. With the reputation of Hampstead Heath I initially thought that they had met for sex but that seems to be the last thing on anyone’s mind.
But once inside, the room, like its owner, is distinctly lacking in bonhomie. There are three single chairs, spaced around the periphery, and a well stocked bar.
Hirst takes the most comfortable chair, leaving Spooner standing, clutching his hat, feeling awkward, and with a need to fill the space with the sound of his own voice.
There’s something rather odd about Hirst. For almost the entire first act he says nothing. Literally, nothing. Stewart sits down in a chair, and seems to zone out, as the affable Spooner talks for England while pouring the pair of them copious drinks.
It has fallen to McKellen to become the funny one of the double act. He gurns and grimaces, occasionally a little too much, overdoing the drunk act, but he has the lion’s share of the laughs.
But he’s on a sticky wicket trying hard to elicit some sort of response from his host. He attempts to impress on the well-dressed and lofty Hirst that he’s also a writer, a poet, educated and erudite but is the mysterious Hirst taking any notice?
Suddenly two other men turn up. Damien Moloney’s Foster is young, arrogant and quick tempered, demanding to know who Spooner is and why he is there. His gruff-voiced friend, Briggs, is more understanding. The pair of them look after Hirst who, on a couple of occasions keels over and crawls out of the room.
I couldn’t help but think that Hirst had dementia but, with the industrial volumes of alcohol being consumed, it could be that his mind is pickled and 45 per cent proof.
“You are in no man’s land. Which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever, icy and silent.” Hirst responds “I’ll drink to that!”
Poor Spooner wonders what he’s got himself into. Post-interval the conversation picks up but wanders right into the outfield.
Owen Teale’s Briggs (complete with a dubious cockney accent that comes via The Gower Peninsula) is a dab hand with scrambled eggs and calming both the excitable Foster and his employer and there’s a suggestion that he and Foster are a couple.
But both he and Moloney are wasted, given little to do other than pull the curtains and pour drinks.
You can fill a Pinter with any number of starry names but in the end it is the playwright’s funny, off-kilter, enthralling language that bowls you over.
No Man’s Land plays at Wyndham’s Theatre until December 17.
No Man's Land
Patrick Stewart & Ian McKellen play the game during a night of drinking and awkward conversations in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land.