Sunday 7 August 2016

No Man's Land

Lyceum, Sheffield
6th August, 2016, matinee
*Please note that No Man's Land is still in early previews.

In the programme notes, director Sean Mathias (along with McKellen and Stewart) recollects seeing the original National Theatre production of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land in 1975 starring Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud. ‘In Pinter’s play’, he goes on to say, ‘the past and present merge in a place that might be unreliable like a distorted mirror’. Mathias’ production, which we saw on its pre-London tour, plays homage to that original production. Pinter started out in repertory theatre and Peter Hall’s National Theatre production starred two knights of the realm who also started out in the all but gone world of rep. Forty years later two other sirs who started out in rep theatre have taken on the roles of Hirst and Spooner. In this production, as with the play, the past and present merge in terms of casting, acting styles and production traditions. The effect is a faithful and stylish production and one which gives attention to the play’s underlying tone of nostalgia.

At the play’s start, Nina Dunn’s tree projections locate us in Hampstead Heath. It is peaceful, colourful and almost rural. We then enter Hirst’s house, Stephen Brimson Lewis’ design creating the chic drawing room and bar. Stewart’s smart-suited Hirst is sophisticated but has hints of fragility, slowly shuffling about the room. McKellen’s Spooner is roughish, lively (and in fine physical form), with a twinkle in his eye. Spooner may have the bulk of the lines early on and takes roost of the room, but it is Hirst, sat in the room’s solitary arm chair silent and icy, who holds the power.

Then, when Owen Teale as Briggs and Damien Molony as Foster enter, they run rings around Spooner, both physically and verbally, playing mind games and tricks on him such as vanishing a coin and putting it in his glass in order to intimidate. At first they seem to be Hirst’s heavies, Teale’s jacket and moustache particularly giving off that type of vibe; interestingly their costumes help to temporally locate the play as distinctly seventies. Later in the play, however, Briggs now appears much more business-like and later dons an apron to serve breakfast thus playing a much more domestic and stereotypically female role in the household. It begs the question who these two men are, what exactly are their names, why do they care so much for Hirst, and what exactly are their roles?

As Briggs' disorientating directions to Bolsover Street twist and turn, we are thrown and spun around; just as we begin to understand what may be happening and the relationships between the characters the play swerves in a new direction. This sense of being repeatedly wrong-footed leaves us feeling vulnerable and uneasy. We laugh at the coin trick, but this tricksiness is embedded within the whole structure of the play, even its relationship with us as an audience. It feels as if we are being toyed with and are forced to wonder how much illusion and disillusion is at play. The odd trajectory is anything but straightforward, time, place, memory, reality and fiction dissolve into a sphere of labyrinthine proportions. Towards the end in particular an ethereal atmosphere manifests as, despite the characters' shifting layers and their alternating grip on power, they seem frozen within this uneasiness, the purgatorial stasis of 'no man's land'.

The poetry of Pinter's language is striking, making what is – essentially - four blokes standing around talking pregnant with alternating tones of threat, vulnerability, wistfulness and comedy. The rhythms and repetitions of the reminiscences strike a chord and even the long pauses seem timed to wring the utmost from the words, or absence of them. It befits that there is much talk of the poetic vocation within the play. And what more could one want, but to hear two of the greatest living actors slash and parry with nimble verbosity only to be vanquished by the others' cutting silence or an uproariously filthy one-liner.

Pinter’s play can still perplex forty years on, and its poetry and blend of humour and menace are enduring. Stewart admits to seeing the original production three times in a single week, so 'dazzled' was he. This is a play to sink your teeth into – or attempt to even as its ultimate meaning grows increasingly elusive – and must surely repay watching several times over. Alas, theatre is ephemeral and we are unlikely to have the opportunity to revisit this production, so we are left with only our memories and impressions, which will inevitably alter and shift over time in a similar fashion to Pinter's drama, the performance we saw living on in its own kind of 'no man's land', which is a rather exciting thought.

What’s more, for a Pinter play to pack out a 1000 seat theatre in Sheffield on a summer afternoon is remarkable.

No Man’s Land plays at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield until 13th August before touring. It then transfers to the Wyndham’s Theatre from 8th September until 17th December, 2016.

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