“There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true or false,” wrote Nobel Prize-winning English playwright Harold Pinter in 1958. “A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.”
Last Sunday saw the opening of director Sean Mathias’s all-star production of Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” at Berkeley Rep’s Rhoda Theater. Pinter’s unsettling play captures the mystery of human experience and the search for meaning, offering a “no man’s land” in which nothing is certain and nothing is resolved. The play follows two elderly writers, Hirst (Patrick Stewart) and Spooner (Ian McKellen), who meet in a pub and return to the former’s grand home to continue drinking. We are unsure of the relationship between the two men and become even more so following the return home of Hirst’s younger housemates, Foster and Briggs (Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley, respectively). The audience wonders, do Hirst and Spooner really know each other? Is Hirst suffering from dementia and memory loss? What is the role of the younger men? Are they live-in caretakers or something more threatening? However, the play is not interested in providing simple answers to these questions, instead intensifying the ambiguity by developing a sinister world in which the lines between reality and imagination, past and present are blurred.
The show’s engagement at the Berkeley Rep serves as a warm-up before it heads to Broadway in October, where it will run in repertory with the same four actors performing Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” The New York Times noted, “(Mr. Pinter) was rightly perceived to be the heir to Samuel Beckett, who was his friend and mentor. Like Beckett, Mr. Pinter created worlds profoundly comic and tragic, in which meaning is never fixed, memory lies and people are betrayed not just by one another but also by their own minds.”
It is fitting that these postmodern classics would run in repertory, as they share an infamous staticity and plotlessness, both filled with meaningful silences that make a greater impact than any speech or action. Mathias explained, “In ‘Waiting for Godot,’ two men exist in a universe that is both real and imagined — a place where time does not always advance towards a future. And as the two men wait, two outsiders enter to disrupt that universe. In ‘No Man’s Land,’ two men inhabit a land that is neither here nor there — a land where time and memory play unreliable tricks. And as these two men converse, two other men who are both familiar and unfamiliar enter this same land with unnerving effect.”
Mathias has a careful eye for physical comedy, demonstrated in the understated moments when McKellen cradles his scotch like a baby or struggles to handle the bottle, his coat and two glasses as he tries to pour himself another drink. Mathias’s delicate direction combined with McKellen’s comic physicality prevent these scenes from becoming cartoonish. McKellen provides a stunning performance throughout, but it is Stewart who really shines, with his enthralling enactment of the decay of age. Hirst, an aging poet whose mind is falling into decline, is perhaps putting on a performance when he suddenly remembers Spooner as a friend from Oxford and claims to know why he is there. It is a haunting portrayal of the infallibility of memory and one that weighs on theater-goers long after the play ends.
The play is visually stunning, from the grand, curved set to the outstanding costuming, both designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis. Some may find the play’s ambiguity too challenging and frustrating to endure, but the masterful performances by Stewart and McKellen are enough to captivate any audience member.
“No Man’s Land” runs at the Berkeley Repertory Theater through August 31. The show is currently sold out, but you may be able to find tickets via cancellations by calling the box office at (510) 647-2949.