The pleasure of watching great actors at work can almost overwhelm the play itself, as Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart demonstrate in a new staging of Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” at Berkeley Rep in California.
Pinter’s 1975 drama gives us two poets -- one shabby, the other wealthy and successful.
McKellen’s Spooner, dressed somewhere between an eccentric professor and a street person, comes back to the grand Hampstead home of Stewart’s Hirst for another drink.
McKellen raises Pinteresque shrugs, twitches and pauses -- not to mention burps and limps -- to a high art. He’s ironic and floridly old-fashioned in his speech. Stewart is silent or blunt and to the point.
“What did he say?” Hirst asks Spooner in the middle of a story about the past.
“You expect me to remember what he said?” an exasperated Spooner replies.
“No,” Hirst deadpans, as he downs another Scotch. Soon, on the verge of passing out, he drifts into maudlin recollections of a dream in which someone drowns in a lake.
Halfway through the first act, Spooner meets Foster (Billy Crudup) and Briggs (Shuler Hensley), Hirst’s personal assistants and handlers. In this increasingly toxic mix, the two writers go at each other more nastily in the second act, which features a Champagne breakfast for Spooner, memories of the poets’ days at Oxford and one-upping tales of their affairs.
“I wonder why we weren’t close,” Hirst reflects about their post-collegiate days. “Of course, I was successful early.”
Directed by Sean Mathias, the production respects the ambiguities of the script while making clear the profound differences between the two men.
Hirst may be successful, yet he’s far from happy. He tries to remember his youth, then admits “it’s gone, it never existed.”
Spooner may be an obsequious nobody, yet he’s still engaged with the world, still has a bounce in his step. He offers to organize a poetry reading of Hirst’s work at a literary society he runs at a Chalk Farm pub. Hirst refuses and downs another drink. The gap between them -- the no man’s land -- cannot be bridged.
The production moves to Broadway in the fall, where it will run in repertory with the same cast in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”
“No Man’s Land” runs through Aug. 31 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Information: +1-510-647-2949; http://www.berkeleyrep.org. The play begins previews at the Cort Theatre in New York on Oct. 31. Rating: ****
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(Stephen West is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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