In 1975 when Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land first opened at the Old Vic in London, the “two Sirs” Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir John Gielgud, took on the lead roles of Hirst and Spooner respectively, a pair of aging writers drinking in a North West London home on a summer’s eve. In Sean Mathias’ 2016 production we see the “two Sirs”, Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart, taking on these roles.
After already consuming their fair share of grog at the local pub, Spooner (McKellen) is invited to join Hirst (Stewart) for a nightcap at his home. Both learned men, men of words, the prose of their interaction flows extravagantly from topic to topic until two younger men, Foster (Damien Malony) and Briggs (Owen Teale) join the festivities, weary of the strange Spooner’s intentions with their well to do master (and his large supply of whiskey).
Each character is at times restrained and exuberant, showing restraint during interrogation and flamboyance during soliloquy, each playing a game of one-upmanship throughout. Sir Patrick Stewart, despite being almost towered over by the ensemble, holds himself with an air of grace and deep importance, commanding the audience’s attention with a mere eyebrow, even when sitting silently in his chair. Sir Ian McKellen is a joyous jester, prancing around the exterior of the room, tightly clutching his whiskey whilst spinning a tale or two.
The mood is changed irreparably when the two Sirs are joined by their younger cast mates. Molony, despite his youthful appearance and ridiculously period 70s attire, commands every interaction when he enters the room. He moves menacingly about the space, intimidating Spooner and uncomfortably hovering over his “master” Hirst, almost patting him like a pet and speaking about him as if he weren’t in the room. Menacing muscle man Briggs is given a softer edge by Teale, who at first appearance seems to have been cast to type only to reveal another dimension in quiet moments with Spooner.
A pre-production featurette chronicling behind the scenes activity from rehearsals, to touring the production, to capturing the authentic 1970s details of the costumes, sets and props, really routes the performance in its original (and intended) era. All of these details are fascinating insights into one of Pinter’s most critically acclaimed plays, however interviews with the cast discussing the power play of the characters throughout does somewhat distract viewers. I found myself really focusing on the power dynamics of the players and not stopping to enjoy the play as a whole.
The post-performance interview with the cast and director is a fascinating insight into not only the makings of the production, but the relationship that two of the world’s biggest actors have not only with each other, but also with theatre. Pinter’s No Man’s Land is a must see for theatre buffs, and what better production to see than one starring the “two Sirs” of our generation.
National Theatre Live: No Man’s Land is in selected cinemas from Saturday 4th February through Sharmill Films.