Consummate Performances in Harold Pinter's
Also see Richard's reviews of Camelot and The Loudest Man on Earth
This marks the third time I have seen this elliptical play, the first being at the Wyndham Theatre in London in 1975 with Sir John Gielgud playing Spooner and Sir Ralph Richardson playing Hirst. In that production was a young Michael Kitchen and Terence Rigby who cut out their own notched in the theatrical and film worlds. In 1994 I saw Jason Robards and Christopher Plummer play the roles in New York.
This is Harold Pinter's most cryptic play in which his spare but beautifully attuned language puzzles as to just what in the hell is going on. The first scene opens up on a great mansion drawing room on the edge of Hampstead Heath. Hirst (Patrick Stewart), an elderly successful poet, has invited down-and-out scruffy poet Spooner (Ian McKellen) to his elegant home after meeting in a local pub.
No Man's Land plays like a symphony in four movements. In the first, we see that Hirst is a very heavy drinker who tosses off a pint of vodka and switches to scotch at a moment's notice. Spooner caters to every whim of Hirst; you immediately see Spooner as a first class sponger.
The second movement shows Hirst as a man haunted by demons and devastated by alcohol. We are introduced to his manservants/bodyguards: the chirpily malicious Foster (Billy Crudup) and the uninviting Brims (Shuler Hensley) who confronts Spooner. Soon the disheveled poet is reduced from aggressor to victim.
In the third movement, Hirst, now dressed to the nines, reveals himself as an important literary figure so the despairing Spooner decides he is one also. They talk of their past, their wives, their romances, and their current lives. In the fourth and final movement, Spooner attempts to ingratiate himself with Hirst but to no avail.
Sir Ian McKellen gives a brilliant performance as the arch, beleaguered Spooner dressed in a rumpled grey suit. This is a most riveting performance even as he wanders about the set using a combination of a shuffle with some wonderful understated bits of physical comedy, juggling two glasses, a bottle and his coat to pour a drink.
Sir Patrick Stewart is every bit as extraordinary just sitting in a chair, forestalling his next drink or tentatively placing a foot to balance on his shaky walk to the liquor cabinet. His shifts from gracious reserve to vulnerability to old school geniality are convincing as well as astonishing, especially at the beginning of the second act when, refreshed from a night's sleep, Hirst suddenly recognizes Spooner as an old Oxford classmate. Stewart brilliantly tackles his long monologue with a fervent joy, talking about past romantic conquests, including Spooner's wife. McKellen shows Spooner has no idea what his friend is talking about, but he rises to the occasion, growing into the person Hirst is talking about. It's a scene that is as delicious as theatre can get. Both actors rise magnificently to the benchmark set by their illustrious predecessors.
Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley are outstanding in the supporting roles. Crudup gives an electrifying performance as the smiling menace Briggs with a powerful Cockney accent, while Shuler Hensley gives a remarkable performance as the stoic no-nonsense manservant/bodyguard Foster.
Stephen Brimson Lewis's costumes are astoundingfrom Spooner's overused walking shoes to the blazing blue socks on Hirst. The outfits look like they are from the 1970s (when the play was written). Lewis also designed the excellent set, a large room that has a curved Neo Palladium compartmented wall. In place of a ceiling, there is an intimidating sky with images of barren trees all around, thanks to Zachary Borovay's projection design. Peter Kaczorowski has created terrific directional lighting and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen designed the original music and sound. Direction by Sean Mathias is smooth.
No Man's Land is gloriously enjoyable as an off-kilter vaudeville of friendship and dependency. I cannot claim to fully understand this haunting drama that proves by turns funny, scary and resonantly poetic; however, it is a piece that will haunt and tantalize me for a long time.
No Man's Land runs through August 31st at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets call 510-647-2949 or on line at www.berkeleyrep.org. Coming up next will be Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike opening on September 20th.