Celebrating London Cocktail Week toasting No Man’s Land with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart

Wyndhams Theatre until Saturday 17 December


I last saw Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart on stage together in 2013 in Sean Mathias’s production of Waiting For Godot. Here the three are reunited again, this time taking on Harold Pinter’s 1973 play No Man’s Land.  Together the pair are mesmerising and make this one of those performances to remember.

It’s impossible to take your eyes away from McKellen as he skirts around the stage, seemingly silver-tongued and shifty as poetic Spooner, whilst Stewart gives a menacing, sinister edge to wealthy writer Hirst. McKellen and Stewart’s humour and natural, charismatic friendship gives a comic sparkle to this production, especially when combined with Pinter’s eloquent, edging on uncomfortable dialogue. The language is a highlight, the tone funny but bitter, scornful one-liners seeing the audience in fits, such as Briggs’s shout “the best time to drink champagne is before lunch, you c**t”.

At first it seems Hirst and Spooner are strangers. Having just met in a West Hampstead pub, Hirst has invited Spooner back to his house for a drink. The two elderly men knock back whisky “as it is”, with Spooner cradling the bottle to his jacket, keen to take advantage of Hirst’s plentiful bar. There is perhaps a homoerotic undercurrent, talk of walking Hampstead Heath “with expectations” in their youth. A favourite scene of mine sees the pair taking tea the day after, now apparently old acquaintances from university. Between sips and stirs of milk we see a hilarious exchange of romantic misdemeanours recollected from younger days, stories interjected with comical exclamations of “I don’t believe it” and “outrageous!” McKellen’s body language, expression and incensed handling of his tea cup saying everything as Stewart speaks.

McKellen and Stewart are joined by Owen Teale as Briggs and Damien Molony as Foster. Between the four men the silent power exchanges are continual, felt in the fetching of whisky, serving of breakfast, even the movement of furniture – from Hirst crawling out of the room on hands and knees after the night’s drinking, to Spooner falling to his knees and begging at the close of the play. Set and costume design is the work of Stephen Brimson Lewis. Hirst’s single luxurious armchair breathes the command of comfortable living, forcing others to stand or hover around him, or sit on the edge of the carpeted circle on straight-backed, wooden chairs which move round the stage erratically as they are claimed by changing occupants. The inner circle of the floor is black and white patterned, the furniture positioned around it like the changing hands of a clock face. In fact Hirst’s whole room is circular. I feel sometimes as if the circle of the floor is about to start spinning wildly off into time.

The sense of time is definitely confused in no man’s land. When Hirst returns to the room the same evening he asks the time, wondering if he went to sleep in the afternoon (the best time to sleep, apparently, while others get ready for dinner) and the next day when it seems afternoon Hirst asks for the curtains to be drawn and lamps lit. There is almost a stasis to this play’s time. The two men are in the autumn of their lives, repeating no man’s land as something which “remains forever, icy and silent”. These men are part of a post-war generation of soldiers – Hirst’s clipped enquiry “Did you have a good war?” tries to integrate conflict as a part of tight-lipped polite society to be enquired about and dismissed. In the first scene Spooner explains where he derives his strength (which for some he says is learned, feigned) and asks, has Hirst ever been loved? He replies, probably not. There is a sad edge of isolation to this sort of “strength”, Spooner mockingly titled “Mr Friend” by Briggs and Foster, who arrive later and are suspicious of his relationship to Hirst. Upon reappearing Hirst appears not to know him and angrily shouts “You are not my friend!” – for his friends all look out at him from the pages of his photo album, they are nameless, silent, parts of history.

Playing with words signals the end – “let us change the subject for the last time”. If the subject and time is now winter then it will be winter forever. We see a branch reaching out from the CGI projected trees of Hampstead Heath, and we are reminded of when the interval was announced with the words: “You know what it’s like when you’re in a room with the light on and then suddenly the light goes out? I’ll show you. It’s like this.” Darkness. And then the applause.