Playwrights are a funny lot: Many are reticent to reveal their precise dramatic intentions. ‘I meant what I said’, was the best Samuel Beckett could offer. Harold Pinter was similarly cryptic, describing himself as ‘the weasel behind the cocktail cabinet’ (say what?) Back when Alan Ayckbourn was a jobbing actor, and cast in a production of Pinter’s Birthday Party, he politely asked the writer about his character: ‘Mind your own fucking business’ was the typically curt retort.
Some Pinter plays are relatively easy to decode: most critics concur with the idea The Dumb Waiter (1960) is about a pair of hit men, awaiting instructions for a job. Betrayal (1978) is the story of a love affair, with the narrative running in reverse. But there are other works which defy straightforward interpretation. No Man’s Land, first produced in 1975 (and starring legendary thespians, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson), belongs firmly in the latter camp. It was successfully revived a few years ago in the West End, with another pair of big-hitters, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. This touring revival from London Classic Theatre can’t compete with such star wattage, but it’s a decent production which director, Michael Cabot imbues with a sense of low-level dread. What it lacks at this stage is a sufficient degree of polish.
The plot revolves around a chance meeting between two elderly writers in a North London pub, which leads to an alcohol fuelled night of reminiscence, fantasy and verbal jousting. Hirst (Moray Treadwell) is a wealthy and successful critic, who lives in an oppressive Hampstead Mansion, alone but for the presence of two slightly threatening man-servants, Briggs and Foster (Graham O’Mara and Joel Macey). Spooner is a down-on-his-luck poet, who helps out in a local pub. As the shadows lengthen and the booze flows, their stories – including a shared University history – become ever more elaborate and improbable. Is this real or merely a twisted role play? Who wrote the rules? And why is Joel Macey wearing such a terrible wig?
Many of Pinter’s plays are structured around the intrusion of a stranger – or strangers – into a hermetically sealed world, their presence a catalyst for disruption (Pinter is arguably the Godfather of the ‘home invasion’ horror sub-genre). The dynamic between characters is often ambiguous: there’s a power struggle going on, and language – oblique and repetitive – is the weapon. The insults Briggs hurls at Spooner in Act 2 are vicious and blackly funny. In spite of this humiliation, the desperate Spooner believes he has more to offer Hirst as a manservant, and offers up a long verbal resume. ‘I can play chess and the piano’, he enthuses, ‘and my kitchen would be spotless!’ When it finally arrives, Hirst’s dismissal is witheringly cruel.
Given Pinter’s refusal to draw up dramatic specifics, decisions on character motivation are always down to the director and actors. Hirst, Spooner, Foster and Briggs (all named after Golden-era cricketers) each have their own agenda, even its unconscious. A play like this needs detailed, nuanced performances to fly, and whilst the cast are good, there are a number of scenes where the energy flags. I suspect Nicholas Gasson hasn’t fully figured out Spooner’s precise back-story or psychology; his blank reaction to Hirst’s rejection deprives the last scene of the necessary impact.
But this is the first date on an extensive, 22 date tour for London Classic Theatre, continuing until early November. A few weeks down the line, I imagine No Man’s Land will be a richer, far more rewarding experience. I would be interested enough to go and watch it again.★ ★ ★