The Theatreguide.London Review
What is possibly Harold Pinter's most obscure play is given a resonant, involving and startlingly clear revival in this production from Dublin's Gate Theatre, directed by Rupert Goold and starring Michael Gambon and David Bradley.
While I would not ordinarily suggest No Man's Land as anyone's first Pinter play, those who don't know it will have little difficulty understanding and responding to it, while those who have seen or read it before will find surprising interpretations that clarify and enrich it.
The plot resists summary. Hirst, a successful and deeply alcoholic writer, has brought home Spooner, a poorer man he met on Hampstead Heath. That much is clear, but what follows is so unexplained and seemingly self-contradictory that one hesitates to state anything as fact. The garrulous guest claims to be a poet himself, the host drinks himself into oblivion, the host's minders/carers intimidate the guest, who is locked in for the night.
The next morning Hirst greets Spooner as an old friend, and they reminisce about university days and cuckolding each other. Spooner asks for a job as secretary, but by that point Hirst is too deep into the new day's drinking to respond.
What is true, who are these people and why are they acting as they are - these are, of course, questions that have plagued Pinter throughout his career, but in No Man's Land they have always seemed less answerable and more of a block to our responding to the play than with most.
Well, no more. I can say for the first time in thirty-four years that I understand this play - or at least one interpretation of it - and all credit must go to director Goold and his two leading actors.
Goold, Gambon and Bradley (along with David Walliams and Nick Dunning as the minders) have chosen the radical course of taking everything in the play at face value, playing the characters simply and thus simplifying our understanding of what is going on.
Bradley's Spooner is, like the tramp Davies in The Caretaker (and more on this later), a street-smart poor man just grabbing what's offered him, and everything he says and does can be seen in that light. He can be obsequious and self-abasing when it seems most politic, or self-important and demanding when he feels momentarily in a position of strength. Life has made him reactive, and instantly so, and Bradley lets us watch him constantly monitoring the situation and choosing what role to play to best exploit it.
This is most evident in the morning-after scene when Gambon's Hirst is clearly playing a private joke when pretending to know Spooner and remember details about their shared past. Bradley stands there a bit befuddled, but only for a moment, and then we see his mind go into gear as he not only joins the game but plays it better than Hirst, startling the richer man.
Bradley's is the least pathetic Spooner I've ever seen - you sense that, having failed to exploit this situation further, he'll go away with a good breakfast, some excellent drinks and no particular regrets.
And if Spooner is less of a pathetic loser, then - surprisingly - Hirst becomes more of one. I've seen Hirst played as a simple and relatively happy drunk and as the captive of his sinister carers. But Michael Gambon, building on the words that are right there on the page for all to see, plays him as a man choosing death, or at least the no man's land of death-in-life.
Though Gambon makes the man drunker at the play's start than I've seen him played before, by the end he is not so much drunk as willing himself into oblivion, with alcohol merely an assistance on the way. For the first time in my experience of the play I was left wondering what pains led Hirst along this path, and to find the play more about him than about Spooner.
(And, incidentally, for the first time I saw and heard echoes of other Pinter plays in this one. I mentioned the similarities - there are also significant differences - between Spooner and Davies. Hirst's fast-talking toying with Spooner recalls Mick's treatment of Davies in The Caretaker, and the two minders can be played, as they are here, with overtones of The Birthday Party's Goldberg and McCann.)
TV comic David Walliams uses his familiar mildly camp delivery to give a tinge of oily menace to the more talkative of the minders, while Nick Dunning uses the other's relative silence to good effect.
If you think you know the play, be prepared for revelations. If it's new to you, just let it happen and all will be clearer than you fear. And in any case, enjoy two master actors at the peak of their powers.
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Review - No Man's Land - Duke of York's 2008