Mesmerizing acting makes ‘No Man’s Land’ a triumph

Ian McKellen (l) and Patrick Stewart in No Man's Land at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Kevin Berne

The magnificent Ian McKellen (l) and Patrick Stewart in No Man’s Land at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Kevin Berne

The original 1975 production of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land starred John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson in the two central roles. That sets a pretty high bar for revivals. But it’s hard to believe those two greats would surpass Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Sean Mathias’ production that opened at Berkeley Rep on Sunday night and runs until the end of the month.

If you want to see acting at its very peak, do whatever you need to do to get tickets. McKellen, in particular, as the down-at-heel, shambolic Spooner, is mesmerizing. He’s a master of the classic Pinter dialogue, with its pauses, hesitations, misdirections and misunderstandings. But it’s McKellen’s physical presence that is most memorable: just watch him walk across the stage, somehow simultaneously lithe, drunk and worn out. Stewart, in the less showy role of literary grandee Hirst, is also strong, although the role is more a foil to Spooner. 

Mathias’ direction — with the two great actors at its center — draws out the compelling qualities of Pinter’s work. No Man’s Land veers between funny, uncomfortable and poetic. Pinteresque has entered English to describe a drama filled with silences, with personal power struggles purely on the basis of language, and with a sense that we could tip over to violence at any point.

No Man’s Land, like so much of Pinter, is barely dramatic on the surface: two writers are together after a meeting in a pub. One is successful, one can barely make ends meet. The connection is fleeting — created only by too many drinks.

Out of that tenuous premise, Pinter exposes the weaknesses and pretensions of both central characters. Hirst is monosyllabic in the first act, as Spooner tries to impress and curry favor. In the second act, Hirst is more voluble as he mistakes Spooner for an Oxonian classmate. Spooner for his part, runs with the mistaken identity — or might there be a real connection? — to seek a comfortable berth in the rich man’s household. Despite the wheedling, our sympathies lie clearly with Spooner. He’s the real person in the house.

Pinter saw Samuel Beckett as a model and mentor, and Beckettian echoes are particularly strong in No Man’s Land.

“Tell me more.”

“There is no more.”

That exchange between Spooner and Hirst could have been lifted from Waiting for Godot. Wonderfully, No Man’s Land will play in repertory with Godot — with McKellen and Stewart in the two central roles — when the Rep’s production transfers to New York. That will certainly be a wonderful dramatic experience.

In the two minor roles, Shuler Hensley’s Briggs — with a suggestion of repressed violence in his big frame — outshines Billy Crudup’s Foster, with his variable Cockney accent. There’s no doubt, however, that the evening belongs to the two knights of the stage.

No Man’s Land at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre runs through Aug. 31. Tickets are limited to four per household. Purchase tickets through the Rep box office

Update: This production of No Mans’ Land is transferring to Wyndham’s Theatre in London in September 2016.

To find out what is going on in Berkeley and nearby, be sure to check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. And submit your own events: it’s self-serve and free.

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  • Eric Westby

    It was an extraordinary evening, but be warned: those expecting a resolution at the final curtain will leave wanting more. The action — such as it is — simply stops, muddling the second act for those of us who had any hope of a catharsis. But go in with the right expectations and you’ll be richly rewarded. One plus in particular is the undercurrent of sexual tension in act one, suggesting that the two men may have met as the result of a drunken flirtation. I’ve never seen Pinter performed so earthily, with so much humanity.

  • Chris J

    And of course, I absolutely love seeing reviews of shows that are completely sold out and tickets virtually unavailable. Very frustrating, not Bside’s fault, but still…the review is like describing a delicious steak eaten and being read by a homeless, starving man. Too cruel for words!

  • Bryan Garcia

    If you’re able to, stop by the box office daily (or however often you want). They release tickets for that night’s show on the day of, usually from people who have cancelled or unused guest tickets for the cast/crew. It’s how my wife and I were able to go. Of course, you don’t really get your choice of where to sit and all that, but is *is* possible to get tickets still.

  • Chris J

    Sigh. Well, thanks for the suggestion, but it ain’t gonna happen, at least this week. I might have a couple of days to try and stop in and see to luck.

    Or hey! X-Men the movie was on last night on TV. Hardly even a close 2nd!