Saturday, January 25, 2014

Review: Stewart and McKellen return in No Man's Land

Posted By on Sat, Jan 25, 2014 at 4:11 PM

Editor’s Note: Earlier this week, Indy theater critic Terry Gibson wrote a review of Waiting for Godot, half of a two-part play series on Broadway that stars Sirs Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Here, he offers his thoughts on No Man’s Land, the other play at hand. Again, should you be fortunate enough to have the means, tickets are on sale here.

The circumstances at Broadway’s historic Cort Theater on West 48th Street in New York are these:

Hirst, meticulously played by Sir Patrick Stewart, is a retired poet and man of letters. He has lost himself in a sea of alcohol, affluence and delusion, and can’t decide whether or not to remain that way. He employs two manservants to protect and keep him captive until he expires. He consumes sultanate portions of expensive whiskey with a kind of infantile craving. He crawls on the floor in precisely tailored suits and emits pointless fragments of wit, irony and an upper-class Edwardian pride of yesteryear: “There are places in my heart which no man can ever trespass,” for instance. The servants look on with brute insensitivity, sticking to their job descriptions, replenishing the liquor, idling along for the luxurious ride.

Hirst is his own Titanic, it seems, the embodiment of a fading, squandered empire. No course remains but to nourish him as needed and usher-in his spasmodic demise. “Another whiskey!” he commands, and all oblige. Down we go into the icy water. God Save the Queen.

To the rescue comes Spooner, also an accomplished poet, now scraping by as a 75-year-old pub hand for a few quid and a plate of bangers and mash. Where he lives and rests from this existence is a matter of horrifying conjecture. Though clearly undefeated, he is unmistakably on the far side of genteel Blakean poverty. He wears a lifelessly frayed and ill-fitting grey suit and moves with constant antsiness and agitation. He appeals and appalls at the same time.

Spooner derives his strength and freedom, he claims, from never having been loved. “I looked up once into my mother’s face,” he assures his host, and “what I saw there was nothing less than pure malevolence.” Still, “I am I,” he trumpets, a matchless metaphysical heavyweight. “My faculties remain intact,” and in Harold Pinter’s unforgettable and beautifully acted No Man’s Land we watch enthralled as those faculties, in the consummate hands of Sir Ian McKellen, go to work. “Experience is a paltry thing,” Spooner says, and a brazen, heroic treatment of Hirst begins.
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This venture fills the theater with gales of laughter and appreciation. Pinter locates and enters a black hole in our psychic universe and radars back a blueprint for earthly survival that inspires and fascinates. It’s a phobic abyss that can only be described and experienced by implication, by the acutest poetic insight and the clearest diagnostic language suitable for theater. Pinter exhilarates his audiences with the discovery that the English language is fully capable of such extrasensory decoding, of the capacity to restore, humor and heal a soul in total resignation.

Women, real or imagined, are the topic for Hirst’s rehabilitation. To recall correctly, to attach the right names to faces and countryside locales, is the reviving challenge for him, a certifying foothold for Spooner, and means of establishing a former place in the select warrens of the literary leisure class. “This is scandalous!” thunders Hirst, in furious defense of one Arabella Hinscott, a young acquaintance of their day “of the most refined and organized sensibilities.” Spooner remembers her differently, and Pinter’s resort to a verbal thrust-and-parry over the alleged vices of Ms. Hinscott provokes and tantalizes the audience with lively English roguishness. 

Meanwhile, Spooner is threatened and antagonized by Hirst’s near-mutinous guardians, Briggs and Foster. Shuler Hensley and Billy Crudup perform these roles superbly as polar opposites; Hensley as if made of explosive cement, Crudup with the quicksilver deviance of Tybalt. Polishing a teaspoon for Hensley resembles an act of violence; tales of Bali by Crudup either scorch or befog Spooner with menacing ambiguity.

McKellen fends them off with deft rhetorical ease, though they are by no means shuffling presences. As in other works by Pinter, visitors or guests like Spooner often take possession of their host’s surroundings, claiming title on an alarming instinctive basis. Yet they must avert harm or threats of expulsion when doing so.

No Man’s Land is no stroll in the park to direct. Sean Mathias of this production establishes himself at the forefront of such practitioners; movement on the stage is continuous but unobtrusive, our eyes and attention always directed where they should be. There are no false moves, exaggerations or actorish mannerisms to distract us from the business at hand.

It gives nothing away to report that Mathias finishes the play with a tableau of moral relativism, an image of uncertainty about what will happen next, and why. In a world of consuming indifference, Pinter theatrically posits, it’s all up to us to decide, if we will at all. “I’ll drink to that,” says Hirst. Cheers.

No Man’s Land, through March 30. Cort Theater 138 W. 48th St., New York City, New York. Tickets: $40-$137; for more, call 212/239-6200 or visit

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