No Man's Land
by Lisa Dib
Sirs Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are two of the finest British actors working today, so it's only logical they would collaborate so often. What's better than one national treasure? Two, of course! McKellen and Stewart play Spooner and Hirst in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land, a dark and claustrophobic discussion of aging, death and nostalgia, beamed into the Cinema Nova from the National Theatre in London.
The National Theatre's stage has been fashioned into a round-walled, ominous-looking den. A few scraps of furniture for our characters to interact with. One armchair sits in main focus, a symbol of Hirst's solitude and loneliness. The centrepiece of the stage is of course Hirst's well-stocked bar, where the characters drink enough to drown themselves (both literally and symbolically.) When we meet our men, they've just met in a pub in Hampstead and are coming back to Hirst's well-appointed residence. They are both writers, poets, and the script reflects that in their verbosity, their diversity of language and powerful imagery. McKellen is less Gandalf and more as he bumbles, intimidated, into Hirst's home; he waits for his host to offer him a stool, or to take his coat, neither of which happen, and he is left carrying said coat awkwardly, standing and pacing as his companion sits comfortably in a large armchair. The two swap thoughts and share tales of the Writer's Life.
At the heart of No Man's Land is fear; fear of ageing, death, a wasted life; wasted potential, forgotten memories and lost friends. Spooner does all the heavy lifting in this dialogue; Hirst sits rather uncomfortably silent, drinking, staring. These roles change up further into the play, but McKellen is far and away the more vivacious and energetic of the pair. The only other players are Damien Molony as Foster and Owen Teale as Briggs, Hirst’s manservants. The former is a young, cocky upstart with a slick but fierce protectiveness over his boss; the latter is also a vigilant protector, though in a much more obviously ‘hard man’ way. The two take no liking to Spooner, even when he makes himself as genial as possible. The play is a wordy but lively discussion on memory and the in-between. Both men are in this state - no man’s land - though Spooner is more reticent to as readily accept the fact as Hirst. Spooner, a less successful poet than his new friend, comes across as a slightly feeble man, hair in a small ponytail and mooching on Hirst’s booze. Hirst is stoic and prone to rapid mood changes; all in all, he is the more sombre of the two, contemplating the years gone by and the loneliness of aging.
It should be no surprise that the entire cast are resplendent, with Stewart and McKellen utter joys to watch. McKellen jumps so easily from cheeky wit to sad mythologizing; Stewart maintains a steely gaze for much of the performance. Pinter’s words flow like water out of the mouths of these theatrical giants, and it’s a divine thing to see.