Theatre trip: No Man's Land

London F29

No Man’s Land begins with the phrase any drinker knows well: “As it is” and ends with a phrase equally well-known to the toper: “I’ll drink to that”. A drinking game in which one tried to match the characters’ alcohol intake in this play would be one doomed to end in Accident and Emergency and the prospect of a stomach pump. I do not recommend it. I do however recommend this revival of the play which returns it to the theatre (The Wyndhams) where it premiered 41 years ago with Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud as respectively Hirst and Spooner. Four decades later the parts of these thespian titans were taken by respectively Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen who have for this current generation just about the status of the former two and not just because the former has starred in X-Men and the latter in The Lord of the Rings. How much of the cheering at the end of the performance was adulatory in respect of the actors’ film work is a question but in truth they do justice to their roles and deserved all the applause received.

Re-thinking Hirst’s opening words touches on the key theme of illusion and reality in the play: are things “as” they appear to be? Have Spooner and Hirst met before their encounter with one another on Hampstead Heath or is their shared memories of literary and sexual one-upmanship in act 2 a series of imaginative riffs? Spooner despite being on stage for the whole of the play is actually the most in danger of being ousted from Hirst’s desirable residence since his position threatens the two bully boys who wish to remain indispensable to their master. Spooner is reminiscent of the tramp, Davies in Pinter’s The Caretaker whose position in Mick and Aston’s room is equally precarious but he is contextualised here as a poet of the ‘thirties generation (a gilded youth now  a ‘gentleman of the road’)  reduced to collecting beer mugs from a pub in Chalk Farm, while protesting too much that the landlord is a friend of his and his demeaning labours actually a favour. We don’t see Spooner booted out but the insistence on the part of Hirst’s henchmen, Foster and Briggs that Hirst change the subject (that is Spooner) and never return to it effectively ends Spooner’s hopes of employment superior to that he has at his “friend’s” hostelry.

This revival is very welcome indeed and the production shows full awareness of just how funny Pinter’s dark world view can be.   

Richard Martin

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