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Spooner: You are in no man’s land. Which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever, icy and silent.
Hirst: I’ll drink to that.
With these epic words, Harold Pinter’s haunting play draws to its tragic-comic close. Pinter’s work, which revels in the absurdity and the beauty of language, tends to speak for itself. The words themselves take the drama most of the way, so all it requires is a strong delivery from the actors to do it justice. This latest production, headed by the mesmerising Michael Gambon (known by the younger generation as the infamous Professor Dumbledore in the ‘Harry Potter’ series) does no less and no more than what Pinter’s text demands of it. Though there is clearly talent on show, this offering is the theatrical equivalent of a no man’s land. It is neither tedious nor electrifying but hovers vaguely between the two, leaving the audience stranded somewhere between boredom and bemusement.
Perhaps it is no bad thing that the performance should stimulate such an indefinite response as it is entirely in keeping with a play that deals in the currency of ambiguity. It concerns two aging writers, Hirst (Gambon) and Spooner (David Bradley), the former successful, the latter in the grips of poverty, who after a chance encounter, spend the evening together at Hirst’s mansion. As the night wears on in a drunken haze, Foster (David Walliams) and Briggs (Nick Dunning), Hirst’s thug-like right-hand men, enter the scene upsetting the dynamic on stage. What unfolds is a series of exchanges among the four men whereby each takes charge of the dialogue in turn. No Man’s Land is a meditation on human behaviour and interaction that laughs at man’s attempts to carve out an existence in a nonsensical world.
The blend of dark nihilism and absurdist humour at the core of the play is brought to life with the help of Neil Austin’s garish lighting and Adam Cork’s sinister sound effects that give a gothic horror flavour to the performance. Hirst’s murky front room, complete with a fully stocked bar, has the feel of a decaying 19th century sanctuary in which Dickens’s Miss Haversham would not be out-of-place. In this one room in which all of the action takes place, shade and light act almost as a fifth character. Particularly effective is the morning-after scene of the second act, where Briggs draws [do you say ‘draw’ no matter which direction the curtains are going?] the curtains to reveal a blinding light which aggressively penetrates the darkness, simulating the feeling of a hangover.
While the stage effects and set highlight the brutality of the play, the four-man ensemble, under the meticulous direction of Rupert Goold, do an admirable job of handling Pinter’s wordy humour. Michael Gambon’s array of facial expressions and booming voice are his best asset. He is convincing both as a drunk, staring vacantly into the middle distance and steam-rollering Spooner’s tentative entreaties with a shattering silence, and as a sprightly Oxford chap rattling on about the good old days.
David Bradley’s rather oily depiction of the overly verbose Spooner is also commendable. He is consistently restrained and is as attentive to the complex language as he is to the dramatic pauses. After the first twenty minutes of act one in which Spooner talks to an unresponsive Hirst, he delivers the line, “Perhaps I should introduce myself”. In Bradley’s hands, it is hysterical.
Walliams and Dunning are both strong actors in their own right, but though they do brutish well, their deeper forays lack dramatic force and are lost on the audience so they remain relatively insubstantial fixtures in the landscape of the play.
No Man’s Land is a case of a fantastic text doing most of the work and a production that does it justice but takes it no further. With lines like, “There’s too much solitary shittiness”, perhaps it doesn’t need to go any further. As I said before, it speaks for itself.
© Joanna Bedford 2008
Originally published on R&V on 10-10-08
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