Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land at London’s Wyndham Theatre
‘It’s the way I think writing – in my case, dramatic fiction – works,’ wrote Pinter of the conception of No Man’s Land. ‘You have to follow the clue of what you’re given… to have a donnée, a given fact. If I don’t have that, I’m in the desert.’ Pinter emphasises here the way the act of writing is a negotiation between an artist and their material, an obligation to work with what you receive, not to fabricate out of your own self. The donnée must have a donneur.
I was grateful for this snippet from the Wyndham’s programme as a little donnée of my own, since it feeds nicely into the first eye-catching subtlety of Sean Mathias’s production. Mathias’s set immediately picks up this notion of dramatic negotiation, greeting the audience with a three-dimensional forest projected on a veil. It’s so convincing you think the action might have been translated outdoors, before the screen rises to reveal the expected ‘large room in a house in North West London.’ This foreshadows Spooner (Ian Mckellen) and Hirst’s (Patrick Stewart) nostalgic-to-the-point-of-fiction narratives about moving between the country and city, but also calls into negotiation the ambiguities of the play’s title.
Early on, when Stewart reads the lines ‘No man’s land… does not move… or change… or grow old… remains… forever… icy… silent,’ he stresses the ‘no’, which is the most common intonation for No Man’s Land as the expanse of ground between encamped soldiers. However, when McKellen repeats the lines almost verbatim at the end of the play, he stresses ‘man’, which shifts the meaning to a land governed by something other than men: this is no man’s land. This subtle, fruitful performative twist verbalises the two meanings evoked by Mathias’s staging. Firstly, it suggests the natural world as a disinterested host of human violence, a No Man’s Land. Subsequently, it alludes to the dramatic green space, a natural setting conventionally opposed to the urban which typically, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, facilitates supernatural occurrences, a No Man’s Land. Stewart’s donnée to McKellen enacts a temporal transition from a world of human hostility to one of resignation to ambiguous superhuman forces.
Or does it? Perhaps the company is negotiating one of the many convenient, desperate fictions which define the play and the theatrical experience. After all, the lines are a statement of torturous, Dantean stasis, not of movement or transformation. Part of the emotional difficulty of the play is in the realisation that these fictions are often needful just as they are necessarily self-defeating. A practical example in this production is the presentation of four differently esteemed actors (McKellen and Stewart, along with Damien Molony (Foster) and Owen Teale (Briggs)) as equal anonymities: on the one hand, no one – or two – actors can be allowed to upset the balance; on the other, it is still McKellen and Stewart’s faces on the programme cover. One of Mathias’s greatest triumphs is in successfully overseeing the actors’ complex and highly charged negotiations, and it is a quiet but remarkable achievement that the careful tensions between bigger and smaller actors and characters is not lost through imbalances in performance. This is in no small measure down to Molony and Teale’s strengths in their own right, and while McKellen and Stewart are a bit too reserved in the first half of act one, the devastating payoffs in act two more than make up for it. As Hirst says in the final line of the play: ‘I’ll drink to that.”
No Man’s Land runs at the Wyndham Theatre until December 17th.