I try so hard with Harold Pinter. I loved studying him in school. I even wrote a “Pinteresque” one-act with my friend Sandy entitled The Bells for a class during senior year of high school (for a brief excerpt, see the end of this review). Pinter’s writing can be so funny and thought-provoking, but when I see productions, I don’t end up being as riveted as I had hoped. I understand his significance and place in theatre history, but the plays simply don’t do anything for my soul. I want to stress that this is not to say No Man’s Land is not a good production; it’s just not my taste. So please don’t let this review stop you from going to see it. The show has received rave reviews and rightly so. I think I’m just realizing that while I may appreciate Pinter, I don’t necessarily enjoy his plays.
No Man’s Land might be the one to see though, especially when you’ve got A-list actors like Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart sharing the stage. It’s pretty grand being in the same room with both of them. Their presence alone is effective. They can hold a room with no words at all, and the cast is nicely rounded out by the younger fellows, Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley. But don’t expect to go, sit back, and let them do all the work – Pinter expects you to pay attention. There is so much subtext and double-meaning and subtlety to sift through in his language it can take up to 15 seconds to catch on to the fact that a joke was just made.
This production is currently playing at the Cort Theatre in rep with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The similarities between the plays are clear: there is a sense of isolation for these characters and feeling trapped in both pieces. And the audience must work hard to understand the given circumstances. In No Man’s Land, we wonder what these men’s relationships are. Where are we? Why are we here? What should we take away from this experience? Whatever you do, don’t expect clear answers. You might finish Act One with an idea about who these folks are and their relationship to each other, but then Act Two turns any semblance of an idea you once had on its head. All of a sudden you have to adapt to entirely new information. And then, for me anyway, the “plot” basically falls off any kind of trackable course. You can try your best to make it make sense, searching for linear storylines and/or relationships, but I think you’ll just end up more confused. As director Sean Mathias explains, “Pinter isn’t saying what he necessarily means or meaning what you might like to believe. Like Godot, No Man’s Land is a game of memory, of time elapsed and elapsing; dealing with things abstracted, ideas and not realities.”
If you’re interested in seeing iconic actors and an iconic playwright then definitely check it out, or if you’d prefer, you can wait for Godot with me. Personally, I am more excited for Beckett’s classic, although my younger self would never have believed that statement, given that the first time I saw the play I was so angry with how much time I’d wasted waiting for this jack-ass Godot. But – that was before I studied the play with the brilliant Dr. Coppa at Muhlenberg College. You know, perhaps that’s what I need to fully understand and enjoy Pinter’s work, too. I just need to go back to class.
Update 4/26/16: This production is transferring to London this summer. You can find more information here.
No Man’s Land
Written by Harold Pinter, Directed by Sean Mathias
Cort Theatre through March 30th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart
And now, what you’ve all been waiting for…an (incredibly brief) excerpt from The Bells:
Cecil: Did you change your hair?
Cecil: Your hair- is it different?
Cecil: You seem different. Are you sure?
Raine: Yes…I did…nothing to my hair.