First things first, absurdist plays are often lost on me. They’re often headscratchers, and leave you absolutely puzzled after the show. So what’s the big draw of No Man’s Land then? To catch acting legends Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen onstage, at the same time of course.
No Man’s Land was written by absurdist playwright Harold Pinter in the 70s, and is set in a North West London house (supposedly the posh area of Hampstead), owned by the alcoholic Hirst (Patrick Stewart), a member of the literati. Hirst brings home purported poet Spooner (Ian McKellen) from a pub one night for a drink, and finds that they supposedly knew each other at university. Spooner is Hirst’s houseguest for the night, and is joined later on by Hirst’s secretary (Damien Molony) and servant/bodyguard (Owen Teale, known for his role as Ser Alliser Thorne on Game of Thrones), who are suspicious of Spooner’s relationship and intents towards their master.
No Man’s Land is not the most immediately accessible script, owing to the often non-sequitur conversations between characters and the sheer amount of razor-sharp wit audiences have to pay close attention to in order to truly enjoy all the humour it has to offer. Characters are introduced with little intent of introduction, and the task of identifying and figuring out their own interpretations of characters’ relationships and backstories is left to the audience. The title possibly refers to the situation that Spooner finds himself in: a strange, inescapable prison (he is locked in the living room overnight, and is convinced to stay on the next day, despite being late for an event).
Despite its obscurity, the highlight of the play of course, remains Stewart and McKellen’s excellent performance, and their uncanny ability to play off each other and amazing chemistry. Each time they speak to each other, there is an electricity that sizzles in the air, and I couldn’t help but sit enraptured and completely focused on their banter. Their best scene is undoubtedly one in Act Two, where Hirst appears to recognise Spooner as an old university mate from Oxbridge, resulting in a war of words where they attempt to outdo each other in terms of the number of women they’ve ravished. McKellen in particular, has an entire suite of subtle but telling facial expressions, and impeccable comic timing in this scene, resulting in the most laughs from the audience.
Besides Stewart and McKellen, an unnamed star of the night would have to be the atmospheric set by Stephen Brimson Lewis (who also designed the sharply contrasting costumes worn by all four actors.) One is beset with a constant sense of unease throughout the play, unsure of just how real everything is. Despite being set in an indoor living room, there is a digitally projected panorama of trees set against a cloudy sky overhead, constantly in motion, with clouds passing by, which made me feel like there was almost always some form of outside force that threatened to intrude upon the set.
As with all absurdist plays, No Man’s Land is by no means easy to watch and requires the full concentration of audience members to even begin to grasp the play’s major ideas. But don’t worry; the cast of four is more than capable, and their spellbinding performance will captivate you and have you hanging off every word. I am thoroughly convinced of McKellen and Stewart’s acting talents, and am honoured to have had the chance to see them perform.
No Man’s Land plays at Wyndham’s Theatre (London) until 17 December.
Tip: To save some money, queue up for day seats at the box office to get tickets at just £20! We went at 9am and were about 10th in line. Day seats are limited to a maximum of 2 per person, and subject to the discretion of the box office, so go early if you want to secure a place.