London theatre trip (2): Harold Pinter: No Man’s Land, Wyndham’s Theatre, London (Director: Sean Mathias)
By Sascha Krieger
In the end, darkness triumphs. As is always the case with Harold Pinter. There they sit, two old men, writers both, one successful, one not, waiting for oblivion to set in. They’ll keep waiting for something they know will not come. As knowledge dawns in Sir Patrick Stewart’s self-assured face and Sir Ian McKellen’s pitifully resigned one, there is more than a shade of Waiting for Godot, the play the creative trio – completed by director Sean Mathias – put on stage together four years ago. Instead of a barren landscape, though, the setting here is the salon-like room of what seems to be a rather impressive mansion. Its circular shape and square wall decor, however hint at an almost prison-like quality of this place, as in Beckett’s Endgame there is no certainty that there even is a world outside. This room might be all that there is. Stewart plays a man named Hirst, McKellen someone named Spooner. Whether they just met at a pub or have known each other since university remains open. With every scene, the stories shift, identities become fluid and more and more volatile.
As so often in Pinter’s plays, outside agents, intruders are the agents of doom, break up facades and unveil the emptiness below. With a twist: here, the intruders are already there. Two men named Foster and Briggs, respectively, assistents of the affluent Hirst, or maybe his jailers? They disrupt what start out to be a harmless conversation piece in which McKellen’s Spooner babbles away while Stewart’s Hirst delivers short and dry punchlines. Only gradually the alcohol loosens his tongue but the dichothomy – on one hand the elaborate poetic overabundance, on the other crisp hard lines of efficient prose – remains intact. While certainties erode and unsettle, language becomes the last residue of humanity. Memories, real or made up, come to the forefront and they need to be told, by Hirst and Spooner but Foster and Briggs as well. As long as stories can be told, darkness is held at bay. Mathias indulges in conversation play set pieces, apart from the opening scene most impressively close to the end when the two aging men engage in a furious and witty war of words about what may or may not have been their common history. What they say is less important than the fact that their speaking. Silence is the enemy and silence will enter the room to stay right at the end.
Before that, however, the characters talk on against it, shifting constellations and power structures constantly. Speaking is only worth something if there is someone who at least pretends to listen and so a struggle unfolds for the characters to be heard. Briggs and Foster regard Spooner as a threat and he indeed is trying to replace them. Hirst, on the other side, is equally in need of a pair of ears that acknowledges his existence. And here’s the interesting twist in Pinter’s usual scenario, a twist Mathias clearly accentuates in his production The agenda of threat, of instability, of chaos, the messengers of human absurdity are victims of what they bring themselves. They have the same needs and wishes to be listened to, to be validated in their existence. Damien Molony’s threateningly charming Foster and Owen Teale’s muscularly brutish Briggs are not just the others, the opposite pole, they are Spooner and Hirst. their need for human ackowledgement is almost touching, it softens the tone and conveys the message: as hopeless as human existence is, we’re in it together as long as we can pretend there is meaning. Of course, the struggle for meaning involves a battle for power, the us always needs a them, community is fragile as each tries to alleviate their personal despair as much as they can. Sean Mathias and his actors create a quiet, almost unassuming flow of language, they avoid overt dramatisations, they drop the key messages between the lines. A subtle production that cannot avoid the final darkness. But whereas this darkness is often boundless in Pinter’s plays, here it has a much gentler quality. More human, one might say.