Theater Review: Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart Dazzle in Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land”
Sean Mathias’s revival of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, playing at the Cort Theater through March 15, has garnered outsize attention compared to most plays of such baffling complexity. This undoubtedly owes a lot to the presence of esteemed actors Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart, also starring concurrently in Mathias’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Such overwhelming star power at times threatens to distract from Pinter’s play, which, while intriguing, is hardly a crowd-pleaser. It is easy to get lost in the mesmerizing interplay between the two actors, especially when the play gets bogged down in its ambition. However, it offers much to appreciate if one is willing to put in the effort.
No Man’s Land doesn’t have much of a narrative. It is highly impressionistic theater, offering a philosophical discourse with characters serving as focal points for dense thematic concerns as opposed to resembling real people. Careening from one situation to another, the play has a dream-like quality that can, at times, be quite jarring. It takes place exclusively in a house owned by Hirst (Patrick Stewart), a renowned and wealthy poet who relies on alcohol to avoid facing his past. The other main character, Spooner (McKellen), is a less successful poet who takes pleasure in regaling all in his presence with ponderous philosophical lectures. With his outgoing personality and eagerness to insert himself into the life of a stranger, Spooner initially eclipses the introverted Hirst. However, we soon learn that there is more to Stewart’s character than meets the eye. He possesses a bipolar quality, careening from a borderline-catatonic state to manic jocularity. The two protagonists experience a strong connection, at once touchingly intimate and bitterly competitive, the evolution of which lies at the center of the play.
Like their characters, McKellen and Stewart possess an easy, organic connection on stage, as one would expect from such skilled actors, perhaps in part a byproduct of their close friendship off the stage. They seem as natural playing arch-nemeses Professor X and Magneto in Brian Singer’s X-Men films as they do here. Servants Foster (Billy Crudup) and Briggs (Shuler Hensley) are irresistibly drawn to the black hole of Hirst’s implosive personality, finding meaning in their own lives through codependency. They do not take kindly to Spooner’s disruption of the household’s natural order, contributing additional tension to the protagonists’ already-fraught relationship.
The final, silent character in the play is Harold Pinter himself, whose idiosyncratic writing gives the play’s dialogue a meandering, dreamlike quality. His humor is an entity in and of itself, characterized by a unique rhythm in the elliptical repartee of his characters. Those accustomed to the predictable back-and-forth of traditional comic dialogue will struggle to wrap their minds around the undulating flow of Pinter’s jokes. If most comedies are like amateur tennis players having a lackadaisical rally, No Man’s Land is akin to watching two pros in a game-deciding exchange, alternating between ground strokes, backhands, lobs, drop shots and volleys. The ball’s trajectory is unpredictable, but when it lands, its destination seems obvious in retrospect. Even if you get tangled up in the play’s meandering philosophical musings (which even the most literary audience members will likely experience at some point), Pinter’s use of humor has a hypnotic quality that is accessible even in its strangeness. Beneath all the humor churns a vortex of dark undertones, as Hirst and Spooner grapple with encroaching mortality and the irresistible backward pull of memory.
No Man’s Land is not the kind of play you see for light-hearted fun. In fact, it makes most “serious” theater look conventional by comparison. It is purposely difficult to comprehend, challenging the audience to grapple with its layers of meaning without ever attaining a complete understanding. To enjoy it, one must be comfortable with opacity without the expectation of full understanding. One must be interested in a rigorous intellectual exercise with little narrative structure or catharsis. Those willing to brave this challenge with an open mind will find a lot to admire in No Man’s Land, even if it is difficult to love.