Poetry in Motion

You know, I go to a lot of theater, and some of it’s pretty darned exciting. But rarely have I seen people get so giddy about going to see a play as with No Man’s Land at Berkeley Rep. Friends of mine who aren’t even theater people went to extraordinary lengths to score tickets to it, because that’s how much the kids love Harold Pinter nowadays.

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in No Man’s Land at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com.

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in No Man’s Land at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com.

But, of course, the play’s not the thing that has people so excited, at least not before they see it. It’s the chance to see Sirs Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart onstage together, right here in Berkeley. And not just because they’re pop-culture icons—filmdom’s Gandalf and Picard, Magneto and Professor X—but because they’re really, really, really good. The two great British actors will be taking their acclaimed West End production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot to Broadway this fall, where it’ll play in repertory with No Man’s Land. But Berkeley audiences are the first to see them perform the Pinter play as they get the production on its feet before taking it to New York. The show’s directed by former Theatre Royal Haymarket artistic director Sean Mathias, who also helmed Godot.

Yes, but what about the play? Well, No Man’s Land is pretty fascinating, actually. It’s a series of rambling exchanges between two sexagenarian poets—the rich, absent-minded host Hirst and his ingratiating guest Spooner, whom he met at a bar. They’re both very, very drunk when we meet them and stay pretty drunk, day and night, for the rest of the play. Although they’re clearly strangers at the beginning, Hirst gets the idea that Spooner might be an old acquaintance of his from Oxford, an impression the guest does nothing to discourage. Meanwhile Hirst’s household staff and self-styled bodyguards, who are seemingly pretty much freeloaders themselves, try to badger the guest into taking a hike.

Both McKellen and Stewart are mesmerizing from the minute they enter the stage. McKellen’s Spooner is marvelously animated, holding forth about the man he is and the man he imagines his host to be while Stewart’s Hirst sits and stares into space, preoccupied as if straining to remember something. Spooner doesn’t take a seat for at least the first 20 minutes, just standing and wobbling a bit as he talks and talks and talks. Mindful of his status as a guest, Spooner doesn’t take his jacket off his arm for the entire first act. Hirst listens in an abstract way, as if half the time he hardly knows that Spooner is there. He’s a quiet but maudlin drunk, and when he does talk it’s to rhapsodize at length about his absent photo album and the memories of his youth. It quickly becomes clear that he remains seated because he’s far too drunk to stand.

Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set is an elegant, round sitting room, with mysterious dark shadows of trees looming above and around it. (When my wife pointed out that the room reminded her of a Star Trek holodeck, however, I couldn’t unsee it.) Lewis also designed the costumes, and the contrast between Hirst’s crisp pinstripe suit and Spooner’s crumpled and askew one speaks volumes about their station in life, even if the richer is in many ways far less functional than the poorer.

Both actors’ comic timing is impeccable, making any glimmers of humor in the dialogue—of which there are many—uproariously funny. It takes some awfully assured actors and sharp direction to pull off a script like this (the original 1975 production starred John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson), and this No Man’s Land is blessed with both. Stewart’s seemingly infirm Hirst reemerges hale and hearty in the morning, only to slowly slide back into his desperately grasping mental fog, exacerbated greatly by continual administrations of liquor. McKellen in particular is a dazzling case study of nuance, from his subtle reactions to changes of mood to the way he mirrors Hirst’s posh assurance while playing along with his host’s seemingly mistaken reminiscences of their school life together.

You can’t really compete with that kind of performance, but the help does a solid job in supporting roles. Billy Crudup, also a film actor (Watchmen, Big Fish), has a compelling mixture of cocky condescension and jittery insecurity as the working-class pretty-boy amanuensis Foster, and Shuler Hensley glowers with gruff menace as Briggs, relieved occasionally by forced politeness or a spontaneous chatty monologue.

Long stretches of the play involve one person holding forth at length while the others watch silently, even when the speaker tries to prod them into a response. It’s interesting to contemplate how this play and Godot might inform each other in performance. Both toy with a sense of aimlessness, timelessness and faulty memory, and in both meaning remains elusive, no matter how the protagonists may strain toward it. It’s an immensely challenging play, and it’s a rare treat to watch seasoned performers not only meet that challenge but soundly vanquish it.

No Man’s Land
Through August 31
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2025 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #84 of 2013, attended August 11.

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