In a play preoccupied with a no-man’s land of frozen stasis, and the desire to once again reach solidity, the set allows for no such illusions. The tree projection surrounding the stage waves gently, either an intrusion into the room, or an escape from it never taken. The set is frayed at the edges: their world is being stripped away, perhaps. But, in this play that feels all-too-relevant, they lock themselves down, trying to recapture the ‘realness’ of a lost time, through empty brags and platitudes. This shorthand for the futility of their pretences would have been more effective had the lighting echoed it, too – instead, there is a brief nod to the half-light of dawn, before we return to obviously ‘stagey’ spotlights, none of Pinter’s sense of fading light and time entwined.
This sense of false stability – the uselessness of any attempt to grasp at a true, solid self – is emphasised by Patrick Stewarts exemplary performance as Hirst. He begins heavy, weighed down by the world, dragging pleasantries out of himself. It is here that Ian McKellen’s Spooner is at his most uncomplicatedly delightful to watch, haphazardly shuffling around, a garrulous sycophant imparting nonsense. McKellen’s voice sways and tilts as he speaks, tilts into something uneasy, as day breaks and Hirst takes up the mantle of storytelling, of imposing a narrative onto the old bodies they have become.
Spooner almost never puts his coat – a battered, brown affair – down. It becomes an obvious bit of business, constantly being folded and refolded as he shifts across the stage. There is a pantomime edge to the physical comedy at points, and it is genuinely funny, but perhaps a little too comforting for this play. Pinter is so much about rhythm, and McKellen and Stewart, utterly at ease with one another, hit the off-beats of the dialogue perfectly. But we are never truly chilled. There are moments: a brief uneasiness as the weight of Hirst’s reticence hits us, uncertainty at his stillness as Spooner bombards him. The most frightening thing about No Man’s Land is that we can never make ourselves understood, that our words will remain unattached, empty – and that is something this production largely plays for laughs.
Hirst is tugged between two realities: the empty, constricting blasé manners of upper-class masculinity, and the crackling, desperate rage he lets slip through, an aching terror for something he can no longer prove was solid. Stewart is truly excellent in these moments, and they are perhaps not allowed to sit with us for long enough.
Spooner flits in the liminal edges of Hirst’s narratives, desperately trying to insert himself within them. The characters are constantly moving around each other, itching to find a place that sticks, the stage divided and divided again by how they relate to each other, loyalties and relationships, Spooner circling and circling, his shambolic persona hollowed out, desperate.
Damien Molony (Foster) and Owen Teale (Briggs) turn in two solid supporting roles: Teale delivers platitudes like a threat, and his obscenities with panache. He has many of the best laugh lines, bringing an endearing gruffness to the proceedings. Molony plays Foster with pizzazz, helplessly angry, uncomprehending of the future that stretches before him.
This is an alcohol-soaked play, and the staggering, pathetic grip of drink on Hirst underlines his lack of grip on anything else. As the play ends and the light grows cold and icy, they once again evoke the icy tundra of no man’s land. The warmth of McKellen and Stewart’s performances mean we leave the theatre feeling far from its frozen wastes, and perhaps this production could have done with leaving us stranded there, just for a while.