That’s the real question behind many an absurdist Harold Pinter play.
The query’s especially pertinent — when the playwright’s elongated pauses and word-spurts are done — with “No Man’s Land,” which is entrenched at the Berkeley Rep through the end of the month.
The play’s been around since 1975, at which point its debut starred Ralph Richardson as Hirst, the drunken upper-class person of letters, and John Gielgud as Spooner, the failed poet who also knows close-up and personal the decaying consequences of alcohol. Now Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart exquisitely fill those roles. But only through Aug. 31 at the Rep before moving to Broadway.
Is Spooner an old university classmate of Hirst’s, an inner- or outer-circle chum who shared acquaintances and relationships?
Is he a liar, a charlatan — “a lout,” as Hirst declares at one point?
The mystery of who Spooner really is — or was — is left to the audience’s verdict as the final curtain rings down.Along the way, however, Pinter’s consistently rapier-sharp dialogue evokes copious laughter from his sporadically impenetrable, always serious-minded and thought-provoking reality vs. fantasy brainteaser.
Sir Ian, 74, a world-renowned British Shakespearean actor, has also mastered fantastic “X-Men” and “The Lord of the Rings” characters. Sir Patrick, 73, likewise an adroit British Shakespearean actor, saw his fame go viral not when he portrayed “Hamlet” but as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
Both had wrung the last drop of evil out of the “MacBeth” title role. Now they’re whipping the intellectual crap out of “No Man’s Land” at the Rep.
And starting Oct. 26, the two (as well as supporting actors Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley as a pair of possibly gay manservants) will take the classic to the Great White Way and alternate performances with “Waiting for Godot,” a standard from the pen of Pinter’s mentor/friend, Samuel Beckett.I went to “No Man’s Land,” which I hadn’t previously seen, with huge expectations.
After all, Pinter, who died in 2008 after writing 30 plays (including “The Homecoming,” “Betrayal,” “The Caretaker” and “The Birthday Party”), had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, hadn’t he?
And hadn’t the Swedish Academy cited his work for unveiling “the precipice under everyday prattle”?
I wasn’t the least bit disappointed, even when forced to strain on occasion to hear McKellen’s mumbled words (which alternated with ultra-precise diction in his characterization of a staggering, impossible-to-pin-down drunk).
Or when, once in a while, Pinter’s use of British slang made clarity momentarily impossible.I found McKellen’s performance so magnetic that even when he was a ragtag background figure clutching his overcoat and a bottle of booze, and another character was speaking, I often watched him.
But Stewart (almost unrecognizable with hair) also could be compelling, depicting Hirst’s underlying insensitivity and threats with a simple look. He could exhibit, too, social differences that can be delineated with few words. Such as, “This is another class…it’s a world of silk.”
I loved that director Sean Mathias wisely let his actors display all their theatrical gifts and thereby heighten the vaudevillian humor of set pieces (McKellen’s bouncy movements while tying the laces of his tennis shoes, for instance).And I adored that Mathias let the often-enigmatic quality of Pinter’s pithy phraseology float unshackled in the air: “I will be kind to you” and “I have known this before…a house of silence and strangers.”
And allow, as well, seemingly irrefutable statements to stand on their own: “I am too old for any expectations,” “I am yours to command” and “Do I detect a touch of the hostile?”
I found the lone set — an elegant, sparingly furnished room designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis — big enough to dwarf the players and put their human transience and frailties in proportion.With both leading thespians being about my age, I was exceptionally pleased to find they’re still perfecting their stagecraft, with majestic, nuanced brilliance.
Opening night of the most star-studded play seen in the Bay Area in many years, the audience gave all four actors a standing ovation and multiple curtain calls.
They earned them.
For their superlative interpretations of characters who, despite its frequent splashes of humor, reside in a “No Man’s Land” that disturbingly “never changes [but] remains forever icy and silent.”
“No Man’s Land” plays at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre‘s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley, through Aug. 31. Tickets: $17.50 to $135, subject to change, (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org.