Review: No Man's Land (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, August 27)

Seeing any play by Harold Pinter demands several questions of its audience: What is actually going on? What do we think is going on? What does the playwright believe is going on? What do the characters think is going on?

No Man's Land, Credit: Johan Persson
No Man's Land, Credit: Johan Persson

Even if you can’t answer these on one side of a sheet of A4 paper, you should fight for seats to Pinter at his most absurd - such is the quality of the touring and London-bound production of No Man’s Land.

At its most basic level No Man’s Land is a play about nostalgia (the mood is established by each of the characters being named after famous cricketers and for Pinter cricket was bound up with such wistfulness – though the cricket references are also more subliminally important throughout), what it means to be human with all our struggles, and the nightmares and joys of being haunted by memories and dreams.

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In the hands of two of our finest theatrical knights (and indeed two storming supporting players) we know we are going to be treated to a masterclass of interpretation, line reading and presentation. What isn’t so immediately obvious to the newcomer are the layers upon layers that are unravelled – leading to plenty of moments that are very funny quickly balanced by something unnerving, uncertain, or just plain baffling.

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart return to this 1975 play having appeared in it on Broadway in 2013 alongside Waiting for Godot. The performances are, of course, exquisite, but they also have the knack of making their roles, the script and their vital interplay fresh. It’s almost as if they were discovering it all for the first time, though it would surely not be beyond imagining that the play itself demands such originality, as though the characters were trapped in a loop, having to repeat the lines and scenes again and again.

As Spooner Ian McKellen appears to be the outsider, a loquacious poet who meets a like-minded spirit in a pub near Hampstead Heath and is invited home – but for what purpose? To discuss mutual literary interests, to share memories as old friends, or for something more physical? McKellen’s Spooner is dishevelled and seedy, but with a sharp mind and wit and a laconic humour; yet there is also a vulnerability as he tries to inveigle himself into his drinking companion’s life and home.

Patrick Stewart’s Hirst seems at first to waver between drunkenness and sobriety but the actor gives the role an extra dimension of a once strong and intelligent writer on the scary edge of senility. There is a chilling sense of his delusions ensnaring the others in the house to the point where all become helpless.

Damien Molony and Owen Teale as Foster and Briggs stay just on the right side of being threatening – are they staff, family, lovers or jailers? Often coming across as bullies, they reveal themselves as educated and eloquent in their own ways, and perhaps there is no escape for them either.

Director Sean Mathias ensures that the play works on so many levels, with its complicated characters, enchanting poetic quality and a humour darker than night and colder than winter. He is aided brilliantly by Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set design, Adam Cork’s sound design and Nina Dunn’s projection design, which all add to the questioning about whether this is something unfinished, artificial, ethereal or imaginary.

By the end we continue wondering if this no man’s land is a place of limbo between life and death, or a dreamlike state between waking and sleeping, or a place between battlegrounds. And are the characters individuals with uncertain memories or aspects of each other?

The sheer quality of this production, with a cast dramatically bowling the most amazing googlies, means that however hard Pinter’s work may be to define, the audience wants to know the answers. It may leave the theatre in a state of bemusement, but it has been rewarded by a sublime and beautiful production.