Skilful production, inspired acting, imaginative set – but what the hell is it about?
My advice to anyone wanting to see this play is not to try to seek a definitive answer to that question. Pinter doesn’t work in absolutes. Don’t look for story. Let yourself be carried along by the language and the ever-changing balance of power between the characters. You may not discover exactly who they are, but your understanding of them will grow as insights about life, death, age and memory emerge. Most the big questions about the human condition are considered in this funny and moving play.
The arrival of a stranger in an established household is a favourite Pinteresque device. (e.g. The Birthday Party). Immediately doubt arises. Who are these men? Is Spooner (Ian McKellen) a stranger that Hirst (Patrick Stewart) has just met and invited home or did they know each other previously? An unreliable past is recollected and dismissed, mingling with the present as in a distorted mirror. Are the two men with whom Hirst appears to share his home, Foster (Damian Molony) and Briggs (Owen Teale) his keepers, his guards or his servants?
The language is economic, poetic, rich and intriguing, the blurred line between truth and fiction ever present. The rhythm and shape of the scenes lead us towards some recognition that the task of ascertaining what is true and what isn’t, what is real and what is fantasy is not easy to achieve. The mood of the piece fluctuates between the wildly humorous and the sinister so that we never feel completely safe with our interpretation.
Is this a play and production worth seeing? In my opinion it certainly is. There’s so much to appreciate and enjoy in this production, not the least being the chance to see the powerful performances of veteran actors, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. But the younger actors, Molony and Teale, are spine-chillingly watchable too. Set in the overpowering room of a huge house in Hampstead with a glimpse of the trees on the Heath towering above it, it’s a piece of theatre that has stayed with me: the images, the characters and the ideas it provokes.
It’s not too late to see it. The production is now on tour and there is also a performance of No Man’s Land for National Theatre Live in the cinema.