Film Review: National Theatre Live: No Man’s Land (UK, 2017) starring Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart

National Theatre Live in conjunction with Sharmill Films are once again bringing Australian cinema-goers a chance to experience the magic of the theatre. This time with Harold Pinter’s acclaimed play No Man’s Land, starring the incomparable Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart. After a successful hit run in Broadway USA, the play returns to British West End soil for a run at the Wyndham Theatre which was captured on film for NT Live.

The play begins when two ageing writers, Hirst (Patrick Stewart) and Spooner, (Ian McKellen) after meeting in a Hampstead pub, opt to continue their drinking at Hirst’s estate. On initial appearances, Hirst doesn’t seem to remember Spooner, even though Spooner assures him that they are friends. As the two men continue to drink and become more inebriated, their stories become more elaborate and fanciful and soon becomes hard to discern truth from fiction. The situation then becomes more complicated with the arrival of two younger men, Briggs (Owen Teale) and Foster (Damien Molony) who begin to question Spooner’s intentions. After a brief departure for a sleep, Hirst returns in the morning to continue his discussions with Spooner, whilst both Foster and Briggs elaborate on their circumstances, they are “man-servants” to Hirst but it appears they are only there as shysters ingratiating themselves in an attempt to acquire some of his fortune. A subtle power play between Spooner, Briggs and Foster all vying for the attention of Hirst leaves the older man perplexed. Weary from all the drinking and discussions he exclaims “Let’s change the subject for the last time!” and then musing over a time in his youth where he thought he saw a drowned body in a lake. Spooner remarks “No, you are in no man’s land, which never moves, never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever icy and silent”.

Pinter’s play No Man’s Land, in this version directed by Sean Mathias examines the concepts of ageing, the loss of creativity, the fallibility of the mind and dementia, and the dark place situated between life and death. Despite some of the maudlin themes, there are plenty of light humorous moments to lift the mood. But for a play that was written in the 1970’s it addresses challenging concepts such as dementia, alcoholism and homosexuality in a unique way. Even though none of these topics are ever mentioned specifically, it’s quite obvious that Hirst is suffering from memory loss. The degradation causing him moments of sadness and frustration as he grasps at fleeting moments, but also brief moments of levity when he does remember. The inclusion of Briggs and Foster as “servants” to Hirst is both indicative of these younger men trying to steal money away but it could also be suggested that they may have a closer relationship. There are moments where Foster alludes to Briggs taking him in and being particularly bonded and close, they may just be good friends, or possibly something more.

Then there’s the alcoholism. In Pinter’s play, it is a tool, a means with which Hirst tries to dull the pain of his anguish. On the other hand, Spooner’s extroverted personality seems to only grow with the more drinks he downs. As the play progresses we also notice how there is a mirror between Hirst and Spooner, both ageing writers with a wonderfully colourful view of the world. Hirst, slowly sinking into depression and darkness, Spooner constantly hopeful and with a romantic view of the world, but their dichotomy is only superficial. These are both men who are almost identical, the only difference being their circumstances, Hirst of wealth, whilst Spooner is struggling to get by. It is a slow burning tale and audiences may feel a little confused by the lack of a real conclusion as we are left hanging and wondering as to what happens to our four characters. I guess in a way we are supposed to make up our own minds.

It’s a safe bet that if you’re watching a theatre performance featuring Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, you’re guaranteed to be witnessing something purely magical. These two legendary thespians have been gracing both theatre stages and film screens for years and have acted alongside each other on numerous occasions. So their chemistry together in this is wonderful, as McKellen’s Spooner tries to gently convince Stewart’s Hirst of their connection, and to bring him back from the darkness.

McKellen’s long “drunken” rambles are filled with beautiful inflections as he romanticises over the past. Even though his arms are wobbling as he holds his glass filled with whiskey you never see him spill a drop. Stewart’s performance is deeply measured, as he switches from frustrated to joyful. The advantage of seeing these via NT Live is that the camera can often capture subtle facial expressions that being in the live audience you might miss. Something we see with Stewart’s character on several occasions. The production is also understated, one set, a semi-circular room with 3 chairs, a bar and a doorway. Even though both Owen Teale and Damien Molony add some flair (Molony in particular, who struts around wonderfully in his cuban heel shoes) and flavour, it’s really all Stewart and McKellen who command our attention.As the actors revolve around the space, striding from side to side, or moving from one chair to a standing position, this not only allows the dialogue to flow but to keep us focused on each character.

No Man’s Land is another wonderfully captured performance of a theatre production by National Theatre Live that despite having some maudlin and depressing tones endeavours to instil a slice of hope into its characters and audience. Pinter’s play and Sean Mathias’ take on it is a gentle touch examining some heavy themes and even though it was set in the 70’s still has a relevance for current audiences.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 150 minutes (including a 20 minute interval)

National Theatre Live: No Man’s Land will screen in selected cinemas from 4 February 2017 for a list of cinemas visit ntlive.com

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Carina Nilma

Office lackey day-job. Journalist for The AU Review night-job. Emotionally invested fangirl.

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