Dozens of theater enthusiasts gathered at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts on Wednesday, Jan. 18 to witness a live broadcast of Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land,” which was being performed at the Wyndham Theater in London.
Starring Patrick Stewart (known for his roles as Charles Xavier and Captain Jean Luc Picard from “X-Men” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” respectively) as Hirst and Ian McKellen (Gandalf from “Lord of the Rings” and Sherlock Holmes in “Mr. Holmes”) as Spooner, the play thoroughly confused the audience.
The consensus was best worded by psychology Professor Susan Rakowitz, “The acting was amazing, but the play as a whole was very confusing and very powerful.” Even director Sean Mathias, when he first saw the play years before he directed it, “had no idea what the play was about, I didn’t have a clue.”
Discussion among the audience members showed that part of this confusion came from both the seemingly stagnant plot of the play and from the labeling of the play as a comedy when many believed it would be better categorized as a tragedy. They were constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop after Hirst, in his drunken state, allows his temper to control him as he grows more and more aggravated at Spooner’s comments against Hirst’s wife — who may or may not have ever existed — and Hirst’s status as a man. This leads to Hirst throwing his glass. This discussion is never again broached and the rest of the play contains dialogue that better explains the characteristics of the leading men, but provides no change in their status.
There were many notable scenes that left the audience roaring with laughter — including one where Hirst reveals the details of his torrid affair with a woman to Spooner, her supposed husband. Spooner then encourages the embellishment of Hirst’s tale by revealing an affair he had with a past love interest of Hirst’s. This results in an amusing exchange between the two men as their stories spiral past the point of realism and realizing this, they pause before abruptly changing the subject. All of these scenes had a layer of tragedy to them and with the knowledge that the conversation was a result of pure dementia as the two men had never had any previous interaction, they can be best described as darkly humorous.
“This play,” McKellen notes, “is about dementia, something that in this time people are trying to understand and back then was… [almost] avant garde to discuss.” Hirst has dementia, and this play provides a very realistic portrayal of one afflicted with it in that it is not immediately obvious that Hirst has dementia. The play opens with the two drunken men arriving at Hirst’s home to continue their drinking and after some intelligent banter where no sign of Hirst’s dementia show, Hirst retreats for a time — only to not recognize Spooner upon his return.
This at first is attributed to the amount of alcohol Hirst had imbibed, until Hirst also misnamed his housekeeper, has several lapses where he believes he is at a restaurant he has not attended for decades and even before this comedic exchange about the men’s affairs, believes that Spooner is a man from a more recent past. When the latter discussion begins, Spooner is at first reluctant to participate; when he does join it seems like he is doing so to become friends with the successful Hirst so that he, a poor and failed poet, can gain a job.
This play does not seem to have a resolution. At its conclusion, the four actors remain in the same room where all of the plot has occurred, each nursing a glass of alcohol before noon and seemingly, nothing has changed since the beginning of the play.
Despite this, the play itself is beautifully done. The dialogue is almost rhythmic and actor Damien Molony, who played the role of Foster, Hirst’s secretary, remarked that “if one word is missed or misspoken, it is immediately noticeable because of the break in the rhythm.” Playing off of this, the set designers created a circular set, which, along with the rhythm of the dialogue and the actors’ movements from chair to chair and to the bar and back, seemed to turn the dramatic performance into a dance.
The beauty of the play is also present in the incredible amount of detail put into each and every item that appears on stage — from the costumes to the smallest set piece — to ensure that it would be an item congruent with the 1970s. For example, the costume department added both copper bracelets — believed in the 70s to fend off arthritis — and a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament badge to Spooner’s costume, since they were common accessories during the time period.
This performance was confusing, heartbreaking, stagnant and comedic all at once. It was incredibly well-performed, laced with hundreds of intricate details, and beautiful — not because of the plot — but because of the reality it showed. The reality of old age — of dementia, of the realization of the benefits of failure and the downsides of success and how at every stage of life it can be a constant battle of trying to get ahead.
The show is so realistic that when the late Oliver Sacks, a famed British neurologist, saw the play, his response was that he saw these people every week in his clinic. These characters are real. One is ambitious and feeling young, one has dementia and has all but given up. One has failed in his work but succeeded in his familial life, while the other has succeeded in his work but never had the family he wanted. In these characters, a viewer can see their brothers and sisters, grandparents, and parents — even though the characters are meant to be four men who lived nearly half a century ago.