NT Live No Man's Land is screening on Thu 15 Dec
Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen joust with each other (not literally) in Pinter's classic
The highly-praised National Theatre production of Harold Pinter's No Man's Land is currently running at Wyndham's Theatre in London, and NT Live are screening a performance on Thursday 15 Dec, so you can see for yourself two great theatrical knights going head-to-head in this strange, riveting and elusive play.
No Man's Land premiered in London in 1975, starring two equally eminent knights of an earlier generation. Director Peter Hall made an inspired casting choice. The play starts with two elderly men having a drink: Hirst, a well-off and smartly-dressed literary man, who's playing host, and Spooner, a slightly shabby and verbose type who's clearly relying on the other man's hospitality. Hall cast the normally unruffled John Gielgud as Spooner, and the eccentric Ralph Richardson as the taciturn Hirst, and Gielgud's beady-eyed, wheedling performance, his too-large suit streaked with bits of cigarette ash, was one of the greatest of his long career (the story goes that he based a lot of Spooner's appearance and mannerisms on WH Auden.)
Over the years, alpha-male actors have been paired up in the roles. A 1993 revival had Paul Eddington as Spooner and Pinter himself as Hirst; a year later on Broadway it was Jason Robards and Christopher Plummer; in 2001, Pinter directed Corin Redgrave and John Wood. The current NT production, directed by Sean Mathias, was originally staged at Berkeley Rep, then ran on Broadway with Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley as Foster and Briggs, but for the London run, the latter are replaced by Irish actor Damien Molony and the great Owen Teale, who until this summer was the memorably joyless drill-sergeant-with-a-grudge Alliser Thorne in Game of Thrones.
No Man's Land is riveting, partly because you can never really figure out what the hell is going on. Spooner claims to know Hirst, but does he really? Then two younger men show up, Foster and Briggs, who both work for Hirst, and they have questions for Spooner. Hirst drinks himself steadily into near-insensibility, while Spooner talks, talks, talks. The situation plays itself out as if it were an archetype of something, but exactly what is anyone's guess: the title itself refers of course to the patch of disputed ground between two warring combatants, but it's also ironic, since this is a play with no women characters. And why are they all named after cricketers? Perhaps, in the end, it's no more than a play about guys doing what guys do when left alone with each other, prodding and jabbing and jockeying for supremacy, but even if so, it's a penis-size contest raised to the level of great art. And there are fewer of them than you'd think.
NT Live: No Man's Land is at screens around the country on Thu 15 Dec, with encores in selected cinemas in January.