One of the joys of National Theatre Live’s movie screening of English plays is the chance to clearly see the facial expressions of the actors.
This is especially true with the screening of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, which was initially broadcast live into cinemas from London’s Wyndham Theatre on December 15. The movie of the broadcast is being shown in selected Australian cinemas from February 4.
The play stars two legends of the stage and screen, Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart. To watch both in action is a treat. They play off each other brilliantly and their expressions, especially McKellen’s, show why they are regarded as acting royalty.
The two are well supported by the other two cast members – Damien Molony and Owen Teale.
I knew little about No Man’s Land before seeing this production and must admit to becoming rather confused about the relationship between the characters. As I later discovered there’s no definite answer to my numerous questions as the play is open to several interpretations.
No Man’s Land tells of two ageing writers the seemingly very wealthy Hirst (Stewart) and alcoholic and poor Spooner (McKellen). When the play starts the two are about to have one drink in Hirst’s stately drawing room after meeting earlier in a nearby Hampstead pub. That one drink turns into many more and, as the two become increasingly inebriated, their stories become increasingly unbelievable.
While Spooner is loud, Hirst is more reserved and it soon becomes clear he has memory issues. Their conversation is interrupted by the return of two sinister younger men – Briggs (Teale) and Foster (Molony). The behaviour of the younger men towards Spooner is especially threatening and includes locking him in the drawing room overnight.
The following morning Hirst bounds into the room and greets Spooner as if he were a long-lost friend. This scene contains some of the play’s best dialogue and shows the two actors at their best. Stewart radiates smugness as he claims to have seduced Spooner’s wife. At first McKellen reacts with dismay but ends up getting his own back. It’s especially in this great one-upmanship scene that we see how one expression can portray so many words! Their conversation is again interrupted by Briggs and Foster.
Spooner then tries to persuade Hirst to employ him as a secretary, companion, literary consultant, cleaner, house-pianist, or any other position. But given Hirst’s dementia such employment is never going to happen.
I’m still not sure of the exact relationship between Briggs and Foster and between these two men and Hirst. Are they thugs controlling him or his staff? I’m also unsure if Spooner and Hirst really knew each other before they met in the pub and if Spooner’s aim from the beginning was to work for Hirst. Despite this plot confusion , it was still most entertaining watching a play that at different stages is funny, tense, sad and menacing. And it was a delight to watch McKellen and Stewart in action.
National Theatre Live’s screening of No Man’s Land starts with an introductory video featuring the four stars and director Sean Mathias and concludes with a question and answer session with the five men.
*Photo credit: Johan Persson
Jenny Burns attended a preview of No Man’s Land as a guest of Sharmill Films.
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