“No Man’s Land” – Rich in Art and Craft

I recently saw a preview performance of No Man’s Land by Harold Pinter, with Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley, directed by Sean Mathias, about to open and run through August at Berkeley Rep prior to a limited Broadway engagement this fall at the Cort Theatre (in repertory with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with the same four acclaimed actors).

I don’t mean to be dramatic — but there was a crackle in the air. The Berkeley Rep run was virtually sold out before the first preview.  Even before the lights went down, there was a kind of hush, a heightened anticipation. It felt like the audience was aware of each other and that we were privileged to be there.  We suspected we were about to see the result of a very special aggregation of talents; we were right.

Internationally acclaimed actors Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are joined by Tony Award-winners Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley in a special presentation of No Man’s Land at Berkeley Rep

Internationally acclaimed actors Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are joined by Tony Award-winners Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley in a special presentation of No Man’s Land at Berkeley Rep
Photographer: Jason Bell

This is not a review. I will leave to the theatre critics to tell you about what may have been the perfect set and costumes (both by Stephen Brimson Lewis) and the nuanced performances by all four of these almost shockingly gifted men. There were some particularly delicious moments — like Hensley (as Briggs) telling his Bolsover Street story or Stewart recounting his character Hirst’s youthful romantic conquests. I won’t even try to tell you what the play was about, or may have been about — this is Pinter after all. What I will do is tell you that this production was an extraordinary success in achieving one of theatre’s ultimate goals: audience engagement. Most of us were rapt, most of the time. We leaned forward in our seats. We were surprised (not relieved) by the intermission and the final curtain.

This was not a flawless theatrical experience. I did get lost a couple of times in overlong monologues. But, all in all, I had a great time seeing this play. I had a great time talking about it with friends afterwards. I have continued to enjoy thinking about it.

Pinter’s No Man’s Land had its first performance (with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson) in 1975, so under no definition is this play a “new work”. So why write about it in a blog about new works?

Because, of course, everything that endures was once new. In the middle of the last century, Harold Pinter’s work was just about as “new” as one can imagine.  Not immediately embraced, Pinter wrote in a new way, informed by his background in literature and poetry, with an often-present undercurrent of hostility and menace.  Now considered one of his best, his play The Birthday Party flopped when it opened in London in 1958.   As Mary Rourke wrote on the occasion of his death in 2008, Pinter’s style changed theatre forever:

Pinter offered few of the expected elements of a traditional theater piece. He gave scant background about his characters, their motives were unclear, and he allowed no easy answers or consoling resolutions. It was left to the audience to form judgments and moral conclusions.

A few details or references in No Man’s Land may be dated; the truths, the fears, the motives, the questions — those are universal, and timeless.


[Update/Correction: After email correspondence with Berkeley Rep, I have removed a sentence from my original post where I originally alluded to what I thought had been a somewhat annoying deviation from Pinter's script without identifying the line.  It turns out that the line (the character Spooner asks "Did she Google?") is in fact in the Faber & Faber published edition of the script used to mount this production. Fascinating. I'm still a bit annoyed -- just not at Berkeley Rep.]


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  1. Michael Eisenberg
    Sep 1, 2013

    I’m sure you know this by now, but “google” in Pinter’s time was a cricketing term (the verb form of “googly”). For example, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Googly.

    • Susan Fairbrook
      Sep 2, 2013

      Thanks — I did learn this (in “Vanity Fair” magazine actually!) so that mystery is now explained. I appreciate your response though — it has confused many of us, I think.

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