Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart delight in the eternal puzzles of No Man's Land

No Man’s Land reminds us of Harold Pinter's enduring genius – these two actors bring a new richness to it.

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Although written in Harold Pinter’s mid-career prime, No Man’s Land holds a special status as his epitaph. A London revival in 2008 was the last piece of theatre that the playwright saw. A speech from the play – in which the “good ghosts” in an album of old photographs crave a kind glance from the living – was spoken by Michael Gambon, one of the stars of that staging, at his burial.

Since Pinter’s death, the 1975 play has competed with Betrayal (1978) for the title of his most revived and admired work, even though the pair offer contradictory propositions. The adulterous triangle of Betrayal is told through a tricksy structure, in which the story moves backwards from sullen parting to frisky first kiss. No Man’s Land is simple enough in form – its action consists of four men pouring drinks for each other in a Hampstead drawing room – but its narrative is acrobatically ungraspable.

The scenario is that the wealthy Hirst (Patrick Stewart) has met Spooner (Ian McKellen) – a shabby, gabby type full of anecdotes about the poetic world – mysteriously on Hampstead Heath. They have drinks at Hirst’s mansion, into which burst intermittently the surly Foster and the burly Briggs, who may be Hirst’s servants, bodyguards, carers or wards.

Although the play is often described as an encounter between a successful writer and an impoverished one, the only direct evidence that Hirst is an author at all comes in a few lines from his unreliable henchmen, who may be trying to test or trump Spooner’s bruited literary credentials. Claims made by characters are often challenged with questions such as: “Did it exist?” and “Was she ever here?”

Reality becomes so slippery that Briggs is addressed throughout the second act as “Denson” by a Hirst who seems to have no memory of having met Spooner before. Every reference to a wife, friend or profession may be a lie or improvisation intended to gain time or territory, in the manner of the fantastical anecdotes of Davies, the tramp in Pinter’s The Caretaker.

This revival emphasises the ambiguity by subtly reinterpreting two stage directions. The “wall of bookshelves” requested is, in Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set, abstract and empty, lending the production the limbo feel of the post-death anteroom of Sartre’s Huis Clos. And, by starting with McKellen following Stewart into the room, rather than having them discovered in position as Pinter asks, the director, Sean Mathias, raises the possibility that the events are the dream, memory or delusion of a man who may be suffering from dementia.

Pinter wrote in an apparent mode of realism, but three of his biggest literary influences were Beckett, Kafka and Proust, and one reading of Pinter’s major plays of the 1970s – Old Times, No Man’s Land and Betrayal – suggests that all of these take place in the minds of characters who are remembering or even, sometimes, dead. No Man’s Land is Pinter’s equivalent of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – a metaphor for the available strategies for surviving life and dealing with death – which is what made it so suitable for its later obituary duties.

Yet the play, from a writer who began and ended his career as a poet, is perhaps best experienced, as Eliot’s Waste Land and Four Quartets are, more for language than for narrative. As with the best poetry, new richnesses emerge at each encounter.

Virtuoso set pieces, such as Briggs’s sinister soliloquy on negotiating the one-way system on Bolsover Street, jostle with exquisite shorter riffs, such as the line about Hirst’s accountant being absent because he “found himself without warning in the centre of a vast aboriginal financial calamity”.

Stewart and McKellen powerfully suggest, especially when Hirst and Spooner engage in a duel of youthful sexual reminiscences, that the dialogue is more tactical than factual, the men improvising whatever personality is needed for survival. In their previous collaboration on Waiting for Godot, the pair, seemingly distrustful of the text, vamped and camped too much. In Pinter’s play, their glosses are sharp and appropriate. At one point, McKellen’s Spooner makes a secret note of some fine Hirst lines, for reasons of plagiarism or possibly exposé. In the less showy of the roles, Stewart, whose deep, dark voice recalls Pinter’s, is facially captivating, converting the repeated direction “Hirst looks at him” into a memorable range of glares, sneers and double-takes.

McKellen’s body language is astonishingly eloquent, his crabbed body becoming stretchily balletic when he senses victory in the game of charades. For those who surrender enjoyably to the uncertainty over the meaning of No Man’s Land, what the play means most of all is that Pinter’s lasting greatness is assured.

Runs until 17 December

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. 

This article appears in the 06 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph

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