Pinter’s 1974 work about two old soaks, one a rich man of letters, the other a flat-broke poet, could have been written for these two giants of the stage, which is praise indeed considering Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud’s turn back in 1975 is still considered a highlight of British theatre.
No Man’s Land is slippery and open to interpretation. People who were strangers one minute are lifelong friends the next and mortal enemies soon after. The material teeters between age and youth, love and hate, sober and rat-arsed. The latter is especially fun to watch (and, by the looks of it, to play). McKellen’s Spooner is an affable drunk, his slurring and teetering getting more pronounced with every dram, while Stewart’s Hirst becomes belligerent and wistful.
Sean Mathias’s production brings humour to the fore, with a wicked emphasis on the serpentine mind-games the characters grudgingly engage in (“you minge-juice bottler, you shit cake baker” remains a favourite put-down).
But this is Pinter, and behind the absurdist humour is the shadow of the reaper, a tale of two ageing men going through the motions of life but bracing themselves for the eternal winter. It’s given extra emotional weight for the knowledge these two incredible thesps are now well into their own twilight years, and who knows how many more times they’ll take to the stage together. Not enough, based on the strength of both of their performances.
Stewart’s Hirst is the meatier of the two roles, demanding reserves of gravitas and melancholy, but McKellen also plays his part with unusual charm.
They’re well supported by Damien Molony and Owen Teale as Hirst’s intimidating, sexually ambiguous man-servants, but this is all about the headliners, whose chemistry fizzes from first minute to last. They’re the perfect team, and this is close to a perfect play.