No Man's Land
London Classic Theatre
Oldham Coliseum Theatre
London Classic Theatre Artistic Director Michael Cabot tackles his fifth Pinter script with a production of a play of which—in common with most other critics over the past 45 years, including Pinter's biographer Michael Billington—I have to confess the meaning all eludes me.
The play is set in the affluent, bookcase-lined drawing room of Hirst (Moray Treadwell), opening on the host with his guest Spooner (Nicholas Gasson) of a similar age, finishing a night of drinking in a pub with a few whiskies—quite a few. At this stage, it looks as though they were previously strangers, with the reason for Hirst inviting Spooner back to his house kept ambiguous. Spooner becomes a little too drunk and crawls away, before the other two members of the household enter: foppish Foster (Joel Macey) and gangster-like Briggs (Graham O'Mara). They appear to be members of the household staff, but there is a hint that they may be taking advantage of the rich old man—or not.
Relationships change when Hirst returns and doesn't know who Spooner is, and then later again when he recognises him as having been a fellow student at Oxford. It seems from this conversation that Hirst is a successful writer of some kind, whereas Spooner calls himself a poet, although not nearly as successful as his host. But what 'seems' can change from one moment to the next in a play that often appears to be being wilfully obscure, even for Pinter.
The characters talk a lot but rarely connect or communicate with one another. A lot of the speech is in the form of a kind of monologue that appears to be dialogue but with all the reactions of the other person—verbal and gestural—excised. When there is an exchange of information, it will often contradict something else that has been said, or it's an isolated anecdote with no obvious relationship to anything else, or it will promise something that never happens: Spooner tells Briggs he has to rush off to a meeting but never leaves; Hirst tells Foster he has too much work to do to go for his walk but never does any.
When the usual elements to guide you through a play such as plot and meaning are so elusive, a lot of responsibility is put on the performers to grab and sustain the audience's attention, and, while they do a pretty decent job, this is a lot to ask for two hours (including interval). Each of the four actors creates a distinct character and voice, but, at least in some cases, the delivery is all on one level, with monologues, dialogue and casual asides all given the same rhetorical emphasis. Pinter's usual underlying atmosphere of menace is present but never especially threatening, and the unchanging pace feels a little too leisurely by the end.
This isn't a play we see revived often (unless you were lucky enough to get a ticket for the recent revival with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart on the West End) so it's certainly a production to catch if you are a fan of Pinter. For me, however, the ambiguity translated into not enough substance to sustain two hours in the theatre.
Reviewer: David Chadderton