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.