Friday 30 December 2016

Harold Pinter's 'No Man's Land' - live relay from West End theatre into cinemas

A most agreeable afternoon spent in my local cinema watching a live relay from Wyndham's theatre in London's West End of this utterly marvellous Harold Pinter play (though which of his plays does not qualify for that adjective?) with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in the main roles. Totally mesmerising, this was being relayed live not only to cinemas throughout the country but also to various venues around the world, including New York (which would have meant an 8 a.m. start) and China. Attending it cost me nearly three times my usual cinema price, but taking the opportunity was totally justified.

I do so love practically anything by Pinter. His plays are so , angular, off-kilter and mystifying, yet engorged with some hilarious black humour - and this is one of his very best, a play I already knew quite well.
It was first produced in 1975 (the play being firmly set around that time) with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson,  a production that was later recorded for TV and which I watched twice. I also have a radio recording made in the early 1990s with Dirk Bogarde and Michael Horden.

Exactly what it's about is anyone's guess - and therein lies a large part of the attraction. Two ageing men are talking, drinking and reminiscing about their lives in the home of the more affluent one (in this case, Stewart) though exactly what their relationship is to each other is left up in the air. They banter and bait one another, occasionally getting quite nasty and bitchy - then suddenly Stewart will ask McKellen "Who are you?" There are long monologues (always riveting) from one and then the other while the other remains silent giving the occasional quizzical look.
There are, now and again, odd remarks, such as when McKellen asks Stewart, ""Did you ever hang around Hampstead Heath?" (an area in north London that was - and I think may still be - notorious for anonymous, quickie gay encounters). The non-committal response is left ambiguous. (The McKellen character, at least, is married with two adult daughters - and is shocked to hear that the other once seduced his wife.) 

Then there's the appearance of two mysteriously unexplained men, one middle aged - the older character's 'butler'? - the other shady one, a younger (here Owen Teale and Damien Maloney) both of whom have a threatening menace about them, verging on the bullying of the two older men, and certainly deliberately provoking them.

The play finishes unresolved, as do just about all of Pinter's works, and we are left wondering what it was all about - but in the most satisfying way.

At the end of this performance there was an audience Q & A session with the director and the four members of the cast. Ian McKellen said that a lot of people make the mistake of trying to read too much into and over-interpret Pinter's plays, and that we shouldn't try to think too hard about it but just take it as you experience it. Easier said than done. 
The very interesting comment was also made that the play is about something that was never discussed or hardly even recognised at the time it was written: viz the onset of dementia. I think this must be true.

All in all, a highly positive and rewarding afternoon's experience.


  1. I cannot abide Pinter....this duslike stems from studying it to death in csc English circa 1978

    1. Each to his own, J.G. It took me a long time to 'get' him, and even now I'm not quite sure I do. However, I've been musing on whether he could really be the greatest playwright of the 20th century from any country, at least among those I know - and I really do think he could be, despite such very stiff competition (Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Miller, many more). Pinter would probably get my nomination.
      Great shame you were soaked so deeply in studying him to his (and your?) detriment, though I can well appreciate what you mean.

  2. mckellen and stewart - DROOL! HOT STUFF!

    HNY, dear raybeard! hope you are feeling better!

    1. Thanks for your wishes, W.Q., which I salute you with too - you KNOW I do - as I do also your four co-residents. The year currently disappearing up its own arse has been a horrendous one for all sorts of reasons, and I'll be so glad to see the back of it - though the prospects for 2017 are hardly any better. But surely we can't have two such crap years in a row - can we?

      McKellen and Stewart have now formed a kind of 'double-act', and not only in this play, in which their mutual respect and affection for each other clearly shows. So it was good to have the experience of seeing them perform together - even if it was 'in the flesh' at a distance.

  3. Delighted to see that McKellen and Stewart have reunited.

    I saw this dynamic duo about 3 years ago in "Godot" and "No Man's Land." I was very familiar with the former, but very unfamiliar with the latter. When I left the theater, like you, I was wondering what it was all about.

    Amazing performances and "I'll drink to that!"

    1. I'm so pleased you saw this, Paul. Before the play started there was a 10-minute film about this production when it was touring, and it was mentioned that it had played in New York, which I hadn't been sure about.
      I'd have given so much to have seen their 'Godot', one of my very favourite of ALL plays. It was similarly relayed into cinemas a couple of years ago, but it was an evening performance and I would not have got back until around 11 p.m., having spent all the time worrying about the pussies. Too bad. I can only hope that they might have recorded it in a form that'll get shown on TV sometime.
      Our next local similar relay into cinemas is in early Feb of Shaffer's 'Amadeus'. with a black Salieri played by Lucien Msamati. The production has had stupendous reviews but once again, alas, it's an evening production and scheduled to run for THREE and a HALF hours! It's another play I dearly love (I have the original London cast - Paul Scofield and Simon Callow - on audio tape) which I think was far superior than the subsequent film - though the director's cut of the latter is much, much better. Trouble is, Peter Shaffer could never leave anything alone and was always tinkering to try to improve, often with reverse results. I did see a production at the Old Vic about 20 years ago, (the last time I've been to a London theatre), with David Suchet and Michael Sheen, though it's a pity I didn't think it was an especially good production. I still rate the original as-it-was-written Paul Scofield version as being the best.

      But as for 'No Man's Land', it was a privilege to have been able to see this, with its blistering performances, even if it was in 'second-hand' form.

  4. Oh that zany Mr. Pinter, he's a laugh riot.

    1. He so definitely is! When I was a teenager I used to be, frankly, horrified at the violence of the words used - and (as in 'The Birthday Party' for instance) actual physical violence
      employed. Then the penny dropped - and I learnt to lap it all up with relish.
      Btw: Another very 'funny' play of roughly the same ilk is Osborne's 'Look Back in Anger' which similarly disgusted me when I first saw it. Then about 10 years later, and ever since, I saw and still see it as one of the funniest plays ever written.

    2. Damn! I didn't actually mean 'Look Back in Anger' (though that is also amusing). I was thinking of Pinter's 'The Homecoming', which really is guffaw-a-minute stuff!