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No Man’s Land starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart – review round-up

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in No Man's Land at Wyndham's Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson
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Sean Mathias’ production of Pinter’s No Man’s Land, starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, has already played Broadway in rep with Waiting For Godot in 2013. Now it returns to Wyndham’s Theatre, its original West End home following its National Theatre premiere in 1975, a production starring the legendary John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.

In No Man’s Land, Hirst, a lonely man of letters (Stewart) is living out his days with his servants (Damien Molony and Owen Teale), until a chance meeting with failed poet, Spooner (McKellen) at a Hampstead Heath pub sees the two men entangled in each other’s lives, through a thickening fog of alcohol.

Troy Nankervis rounds up the reviews

No Man’s Land – two lions

Ian-McKellen-as-Spooner,-Patrick-Stewart-as-Hirst,-Owen-Teale-as-Briggs-in-No-Man's-Land.-Credit-Johan-PerssonMarianka Swain (Arts Desk,★★★★★) describes how this “elusive and haunting” piece is “electrifyingly presented by two of our greatest thespians”, while Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out,★★★★) says No Man’s Land is “emphatically not a vehicle” to let “famous actors… preen and grandstand. Mark Shenton (The Stage, ★★★★) acknowledges McKellen and Stewart as “lions of the stage” who are “extraordinary in the way they convey a sense of isolation and containment. They find plenty of humour too in the imposing gloom of Mathias’ darkly calibrated production.”

McKellen and Stewart “contrast and complement each other brilliantly”, according to Neil Dowden (Londonist,★★★★★), while Dominic Cavendish (The Telegraph,★★★★★) says their theatrical “powers remain seemingly undimmed” One hopes there will be plenty more from both of them – “I’ll drink to that,” to borrow the play’s most lingering refrain. But if this does, alas, prove to be their theatrical swansong then what an extraordinary way to bow out.”

Benedict Nightingale, making a rare return to criticism (Evening Standard,★★★★★), saw the original production and notes how both men manage to “withstand comparisons” to Gielgud and Richardson.

No Man’s Land – a production of precision

Patrick-Stewart-as-Hirst-in-No-Man's-Land-.Credit-Johan-PerssonMarianka Swain discusses the “exquisite physical precision of Mathias’ production” matches “the beautifully spoken dialogue”, while Paul Taylor (The Independent,★★★★) says it’s ‘the funniest account of the play’ he has seen, ’without underselling its scariness, mystery or bleak vision of the twilight zone between life and death that is old age.”

Matt Wolf (The New York Times) says Mathias “resists exact interpretation”, while Miriam Gillinson (Exeunt) says he works with “a lovely looseness’ and ‘isn’t afraid to let the unknowns linger’.

Michael Billington (The Guardian,★★★★) says the “faithful and loving production” captures “both the essential bleakness and paradoxical comedy” of Pinter’s “enigmatic masterwork.”

He adds an implied homoerotic connection between Spooner and Hirst – present in Rupert Goold’s 2008 production – is downplayed. “The relationship is delicately defined and when Stewart’s Hirst caresses Foster’s face you even wonder if Spooner has inadvertently stumbled into a closeted menage.”

Matt Trueman (WhatsOnStage,★★★) says that Mathias focuses on parallels “between night and day” and how they reflect back to “the selves we are and the versions we present”.

“If, at night, identity seems unstable, come daybreak, the fronts go back up: spick suits and friendly formalities.”

No Man’s Land – alienating terrain

Ian-McKellen-as-Spooner,-Damien-Molony-as-Foster,-Owen-Teale-as-Briggs,-Patrick-Stewart-as-Hirst-in-No-Man's-Land.-Credit-Johan-PerssonThe design proves more divisive. According to Matt Wolf it’s “no accident” Adam Cork’s sound design “communicates the chill wind of mortality in the same way” that Stephen Brimson Lewis’ “north London room looks at times as if it just might vaporize into the natural world beyond — as this deathly antechamber’s inhabitants will surely do one day”.

Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times,★★★★) says the “formal yet alienating set is surmounted by a forestscape”, suggesting “a wilderness similar to that of the title” — a No Man’s Land.

Paul Taylor adds Lewis’ “fine” design conjures “a reminder of the life teeming outside” the “hermetic, sterile world of male power games”. Miriam Gillinson says a motif of rustling leaves alongside a sparse living room “feels like a hazy memory of a house once lived in”.

She writes: “A theme that flickers up repeatedly throughout this strange, teasing and jolting work that is about growing old, peaking at life and death through the tree tops, and the firmness and fluidity of writing, memory, and identity.”

However, Andrzej Lukowski says the “ludicrous” 1970s aesthetics “extracts some definite LOLs” for certain costumes, props and projections.

Matt Trueman adds that Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting also makes Pinter’s “menace” go “missing”, a move that’s “criminal for a play so infused with its imagery”.

“In Pinter’s play, light dwindles and dies, gets shut out and floods back in. Its memories are made of light: shadowy faces in flashbulb photographs, sunlight glinting on waterfalls. Yet Peter Kaczorowski flushes it in front-on, hardly directional, never specific. As such, Hirst’s home is always a stage, never a room, still less a limbo.”

No Man’s Land – is it any good?

Ian-McKellen-as-Spooner-in-No-Man's-Land.-Credit-Johan-PerssonPaul Taylor certainly thinks so – he says it’s one “not to be missed.” Andrzej Lukowski is more muted in his praise, saying “it’s not a boundary-pushing or definitive production”, but a “finely balanced and entertaining one” has been crafted, “suggestive of the absurdity and chaos of late life and the disintegration of memory”.

He concludes: “Above all, it’s two actors who still live up to their legend nailing one of the great works of a playwright who still lives up to his.”

Miriam Gillinson talks of the production’s “lingering after-shock”, while Benedict Nightingale says its final tableau captures “two very different but equally broken old men jointly staring into an irrecoverable past”.

Michael Billington agrees this “twilight adagio” is the most powerful image in the piece: “No Man’s Land is both desolate and funny and conveys, without peddling any message, the never-ending contrast between the exuberance of memory and the imminence of extinction.”

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