I gotta be honest, folks, these upcoming blogs have been much more arduous than they usually are. Not fully because of subject matter, but also because we have landed smack dab in the horrible mid-semester slump. This, of course, is no excuse as to why I haven’t kept up on my work. But for some weak reason I guess I felt I needed to guiltily slide it in there anyway. On Monday night I had the greatest honour and pleasure of watching a performance of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land at the Wyndham theatre.
As the curtain rose I pinched myself because it finally hit me that I was seeing two kings of stage and film acting, and realizing what a fortunate life I’ve been able to lead. Maybe those thoughts always circulate more around this time of reflection, giving thanks, and super low sales. Although, I realized that I wouldn’t necessarily be seeing this Pinter play if it wasn’t for the two actors starring in it. I was a little worried that the audience would begin to applaud as soon as the play started, which would be a recognition of the actors rather than the characters. Luckily this did not happen. I did have to keep telling myself to “watch the play, not the actors,” because I’m not here to see Sir Stewart and Sir Mckellen, I’m here to see their work. I wonder if actors who reach a certain level of fame feel like they don’t have to “act” anymore. It’s a sad thought, but are there some who realize that the audience is there purely because of fame, so they start to just be themselves on stage? Think of the acting “styles” of Julia Roberts or Adam Sandler (a little rough but oh well) who don’t necessarily ever change from movie to movie, but just become famous for their unique presence/actions. It is a huge acting fear of mine to become lazy and stale in my acting, or to rely on a cheap trick or joke to carry me through the performance. Like I said, this didn’t happen in No Man’s Land, but the conversation keeps rumbling through my head.
The play itself did not interest me greatly, but I think this mostly had to do with my age. No Man’s Land was a play about two men who have both realized that they are in the winters of their lives. The whole play is spent distracting themselves from these fading days, although in very different ways. Hirst (Stewart) drinks to forget, although we never know what exactly he is forgetting. I wonder if Hirst’s fading memory is due mainly to drinking, or to the messy mixture of age and drink? Spooner (Mckellen) spends his days talking, writing, and probably talking some more. Spooner tries to carry out la vie de bohème (the bohemian life) as a poet, a thinker, a lover, etc. He depends upon the company of others, even if he is not wanted or welcome. The mere presence of another person makes Spooner feel very comfortable. Perhaps the fear of dying alone strikes him so much that he fills up his time with as much talk as possible. As someone who is bounding blindly into their twenties, it was really hard for me to attach myself to this story or these characters. This is not because of the actors at all, but merely the script and subject matter. I went to go see the show with my father, and I believe it may have meant much more for him than it did me. Which is odd, because many playwrights cater to the adventures of their youthful lives, re-telling and re-living their twenties and thirties as vagabonds and crazy people. I guess it was refreshing to see a show that wasn’t explaining the struggles of someone’s (or a group of people’s) problems, big or small (and they’re usually small).
It’s hard not to try and attach more meaning than necessary to sound design in shows. Sound always serves the purpose of the play, and I’m still not quite sure the purpose of the sound design in this show. Throughout the play we heard the nocturnal orchestra of various bugs chirping. Before the show began we heard the sound of what sounded like a fishing rod being cast out into the water. Occasionally there was some ambient music, but I’d have to see the script to remind you where it was. It wasn’t a monumental moment for me, so that’s why it is harder to remember. But these darn bug noises-what’s the deal? We are almost never shown the outdoors, the play takes place in one room, and the window shades are opened fully once. Do we even see out of the windows? No! So why these sounds? The play is set on a summer night in North London, but are you having an infestation? I know I’m focusing and analyzing on these noises too much, but it’s actually really grinding my gears. My immediate guess is that it is a constant reminder of something, but of what? Summer bugs make me think of summer nights, and summer nights relax me. In my research I can find no reason, which furthers my increasingly unhealthy obsession with this sound design. I feel like a mad scientist seeking the perfect formula for their newest creation. Maybe one day in twenty years I’ll awake late at night with the answer, who knows. Until then.
Before I deceive you, let me discuss the two other actors in this show. The two characters were Foster and Briggs, both guards/keepers/ henchmen of Hirst. I only knew the setting of this play when these two characters walked in, because they had distinctly 1970’s clothing on. Which, I must say, is definitely a look that I’m not too sad I didn’t live through. Foster (Damien Moloney) and Briggs (Owen Teale) were at first impression your typical baddies: the shorter smart guy who makes all of the plans, and the big brute who grumbles and occasionally has to “teach somebody a lesson.” However, Pinter did a wonderful job of adding some really unexpected dimension to these characters. Even more fortunately the actors did a great job at capturing these subtleties and playing them truthfully. Briggs carried the hilarious surprise of softness that makes all seemingly bad people funny. There were several small moments where Briggs would make a comment or action that would go against every tough guy pretense he had. For example, he entered with a full tray of fancy breakfast and an apron around his waist as his brooding demeanor covered his rough face. Foster surprised us not only with his revealed desire to be a poet, but his continuous mumbling about the days when he was living nearer to central London, and his past lifestyle. These memories would often bring him out of the conversation and into his own thoughts, although he never lost track of where Spooner was in the room. The first scene with all four in the room was quite a tense one. Briggs and Foster were constantly sizing up Spooner and making sure to keep him between the two of them the whole scene. There was a lot of power and status being communicated through their physicality. Which, funny enough, is one of our most talked about topics in stage combat!
Hirst and Spooner both had some very dense monologues and would often take turns delivering long monologues to each other. The script was so dense, so after a few scenes I began watching the receiving end of the conversation rather than the speaker. As I have heard thousands of times in classes and workshops, “acting is reacting,” so I decided to try and learn from some of the best. Mckellen often had bigger reactions than Stewart, but that follows their characters as well. Sometimes it seemed like I was able to understand the speech through the other’s reaction more than if I was just paying attention to the actor speaking. There was a fantastic scene where Spooner and Hirst are having coffee. As the scene progresses we realize that Hirst is either pretending or has misplaced memories and believes Spooner to be an old university friend. Delightfully devilish secrets are spilled and Spooner reacts to them as if it is his own life. A simple movement of the feet or the tea cup was hilarious. The whole scene was full of amazing examples of effective and simplistic physicality. Any common Joe can go on stage and make a lewd physical joke involving his pelvis, but it does take talent and training to learn how to get an audience roaring with a single eye roll.
So, what is No Man’s Land, and where is it? Once again, I wish had access to the script, because there was a beautiful monologue by Hirst that addressed the No Man’s Land. In his monologue he was referencing to his heart as a place where no ones love had ever lived, a place of loneliness and emptiness. It is, of course, also referring to the area in between forces on the battlefield during WWI. An area destructed by others and filled with holes, barbed wire, and lost souls floating around in desperation. For Hirst and Spooner, I think their no man’s land is the age between youth and death. Stuck in a limbo of too old to be young, but too young to die, and what a horrible feeling that must be. Spooner seems to cling to youth more than Hirst, in speech and movement. Hirst plops into his chair and stays grounded and locked in his leather “cage.” Spooner moves on very light feet and is always searching for interesting people and new stories. Spooner spends his time seeking stories and beauty. I think this is a play that I should read every ten years and see what new moments and elements I find each time.
We did get the chance to meet Ian Mckellen after the performance, and of course he was very polite and gracious to everyone at the stage door. Patrick Stewart seemed to be sick during the performance, so we weren’t too surprised when he ducked out of another door. I know that there are many more moments and elements about this show that I could discuss, but I think five pages is plenty of fluff for this play. Sometimes writing these blogs help me decide if I actually enjoyed it or not, and I really enjoyed this performance. Not solely because of the names, but because everyone did a really great job. The best word to describe the performances is solid. The whole show was so solid and well executed. What an experience, and one I will not forget.