It's not often enough that the Bay Area gets treated to bona fide stars and theater talents on our stages, and we hope that the pre-Broadway tryout of a new production of Harold Pinter's No Man's Land starring Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Patrick Stewart, Billy Crudup, and Shuler Hensley will lead to many more such events in the years to come. Pinter's creepy, confusing, but beautifully poetic play is given fresh life in the hands of these fine actors and director Sean Mathias.
This production is heading to Broadway's Cort Theater in October, where it will be done in repertory with the same four actors also doing Beckett's Waiting for Godot in alternating performances. And it makes sense to pair this, one of Pinter's most unsettling, static, and plotless work, with Godot, which also features four male actors and in which very little action takes place.
No Man's Land opens with Stewart, as Hirst, asking McKellen, as a guest named Spooner, whether he wants his Scotch neat. Except the phrase he uses which came in a moment of inspiration to Pinter and serves, like much of the play's language, as an existential metaphor is "As it is?" They proceed to drink quite a lot in a short span of time in the well appointed space of Hirst's North London drawing room, and we figure out that the two men don't really know each other. Spooner notes that Hirst is a "reticent" man, and says that he himself is a poet. Hirst, who seems vaguely confused throughout the first act as Spooner soliloquizes, merely says that he is "in the last lap of a race I had long forgotten to run."
We're then introduced to Foster (Crudup) and Briggs (Hensley), two younger men who at first seem like intruders, but who we soon realize are Hirst's live-in caretakers. The four men then engage in a dance of language and power, with Spooner sensing an opportunity for employment and carefully trying to infiltrate the household, and the two younger men establishing the status quo, which involves keeping Hirst as liquored up as he wants to be as he descends into dementia.
McKellen is sensational as Spooner, and we watched him, transfixed, as he portrayed this annoying, freeloading, verbose, but extraordinarily witty character. He slouches, minces, and practically clowns his way through the performance wearing an ill-fitting suit, rattling off an impressive stream of monologues about himself and his views on life, and art. Stewart is also excellent in portraying the range of emotions and attitudes Hirst goes through during the course of the play, from quiet and bewildered, to sharp and sociable, to childlike and petulant. The two men are a joy to watch, and they play off each other and their costars with terrific rhythm and rapport. Crudup and Hensley, with their working class British accents and 70s male swagger, hold their own playing two characters who are more roughly drawn, and who may or may not be implied lovers.
But like other Pinter plays, No Man's Land would likely be too ambiguous and frustrating for certain theater-goers. There are several moments that remain confusing to us now, like a moment at the end of the first act when Spooner is locked in the darkened drawing room for the night for reasons that are never clear. And there is a lengthy exchange in Act 2 in which it's very difficult to decide whether Hirst and Spooner actually knew each other at some point, or whether Hirst has only mistook Spooner for someone else with McKellen's clever character, and Pinter's verbal sleight of hand, helping to add to that confusion. And like Godot, and Pinter's earlier work The Caretaker, the play ends ambiguously, with the phrase "no man's land" referring perhaps to old age and the onset of dementia, or to the precarious and lonely position all these characters appear to be in, while nonetheless surrounded by each other.
Mathias does nothing to alter or update the work, wanting to remain true to Pinter's vision, and even Crudup and Hensley are costumed as if it were the year the play premiered, 1975. But his orchestration of the four men's interactions is subtle and masterful, with the beats between McKellen and Stewart alternately weighty and light as air. And the set, by Stephen Brimson Lewis, is beautiful and weighty, with projections of tree branches and a semi-circular, coffered wall that implies the opulence of Hirst's home, and which subtly transforms itself by the play's end.
With actors of this caliber, it stands to reason that the show's brief run here is sold out prior to any reviews coming out, but you can still find tickets via cancellations, etc., by following Berkeley Rep on Facebook and Twitter, and by calling the box office at 510 647-2949 between noon and 7 p.m.