Looking at theatre and the arts across North East England, the North East Theatre Guide continues to celebrate culture in our region.
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Regardless of what you thought of the play, No Man’s Land at the Theatre Royal was always going to be enthralling because of its first rate cast. Ian McKellen (Spooner) and Patrick Stewart’s (Hirst) performances seized my attention and emotions, and forced questions about mortality and selfhood into my mind – even though I had no idea what was going on half the time. This was the trouble, I wanted to love it so much. Two actors who I very much admire and respect, not to mention Game of Throne’s very talented Owen Teale (Briggs), and the wonderfully energetic Damien Molony (Foster), all perform brilliantly. But I was still never quite sure who their characters were.
Perhaps this was the point – after all, Pinter plays are full of characters who are never honest about themselves, and No Man’s Land definitely follows this tradition. It begins with Hirst welcoming Spooner into his stately home after apparently meeting in a Hampstead pub. They drink and talk in metaphors, Spooner sponging for intimate conversation with the very drunk and apathetic Hirst.
McKellen and Stewart’s chemistry is charming and slick, but the entertainment takes a dark departure as Hirst depressively contemplates how ‘forever…icy…silent’ his ‘no man’s land’ is. At this point there are questions the audience want answering – why did Hirst let Spooner into his house? Why is Spooner trying to force this supposed stranger to have personal conversation? Why is Hirst this depressive soul? – having these questions is okay, the audience expect them to be answered eventually.
A drunk Hirst goes to bed, leaving Spooner alone when a few minutes later Foster enters, shortly followed by Briggs, and both antagonistically, yet indirectly question Spooner. Molony raises the energy and dominates the space, and Teale’s Briggs has a constant air of stony anger. Their intimidating manner reminds Spooner he’s a guest and an outsider, lowering the small amount of status he’d managed to acquire. Pinter’s use of power play is something I love, and they handled it beautifully.
The second half was definitely the most difficult to follow, but mainly because the questions that were set up in the first half were not clearly answered, and instead more questions were provoked.
Hirst enters bright as a daisy, and begins speaking to Spooner as if they are old friends. Literally, he recounts memories of their days at Oxbridge and he jovially talks of women they both had affection for while Spooner stays quiet for the most. I’m not sure whether this was more falsehood or if this actually who they were, as it was very soon forgotten and casually moved on from. Confusing the audience could have been the purpose, but we have to know what that confusion is in relation to and what to do with it, and with No Man’s Land I just didn’t.
Just like the false characters, the play’s disjointed language and conversation is in typical Pinteresque style (The Caretaker and The Room are full of two faced characters having different conversations at the same time). For instance, seemingly at random Hirst and Foster meticulously dissect the notion of ‘changing the subject’. So I wonder if the cast and director’s interpretation of character dynamics could have been more obvious and clear cut to help the audience navigate through what is already a very multifaceted and deliberately incoherent play. Or perhaps their problem was their naturalistic framing of the play; with language that already played with the boundaries of realism, only sitting and standing in a drawing room for the entire play was a little jarring and not very helpful.
I was overwhelmed to see such amazing actors on stage. The whole casts’ performances were confident and engaging, and the dynamics unfolding were certainly full of interest. But I was frustrated to leave feeling like the actors were the only ones in room who knew what had gone on. I will probably still be mulling this one for a while, and I hope I eventually get a eureka moment.