As Briggs describes a route involving an intricate one-way system, with unfathomable twists and turns, it soon becomes clear that his directions lead to a kind of no man’s land. ‘This trip you’ve got in mind,’ he says, ‘drop it, it could prove fatal.’
The speech could be a metaphor for the play itself though its two central characters. Hirst (Michael Gambon – pictured), a successful, well-heeled poet and essayist, and Spooner (David Bradley), a dishevelled, impecunious poet manque Hirst picks up at a pub near Hampstead Heath and invites back for a drink, have their own definitions of ‘no man’s land.’ It never changes, never moves, never grows older. But which remains forever icy and silent.
The play’s narrative thrust could not be simpler. After Hirst invites Spooner into his luxurious home (courtesy of designer Giles Cadle) dominated by a well-stocked bar, Spooner attempts to ingratiate himself with his wealthy host hoping that an on-going friendship might be of benefit to him.
What he has not reckoned with, however, is the menacing presence of Foster (David Walliams) and Briggs, incipient thugs who may or may not be lovers, and whose job is to make sure their boss is protected from leeches like Spooner. They succeed.
The idea of a derelict stranger imposing on the hospitality of another was, of course, explored by Pinter in The Caretaker, his first major success. Indeed, No Man’s Land borrows, in mood and atmosphere, quite liberally from several of the playwright’s earlier pieces – notably The Birthday Party and The Homecoming.
Particularly mysterious is the ambiguity that exists between Hirst and Spooner. Could they actually have once known each other at Oxford and have even been friends?
The play’s second comic set-piece, in which the pair exchange a series of long-past social reminiscences involving names like Lord Lancer (‘He’s not one of the Bengal Lancers, is he?’ enquires Briggs), Burston-Smith, Bunty Winstanley, and Doreen Busby, suggests a once-intimate association.
The play also broke new grounds for Pinter. For the first time, his protagonist is a man of means and, like Pinter himself, a poet.
Fascinating, too, is that Spooner, despite having his eye clearly on the main chance, brings a whiff of life into a house literally plunged into darkness. Briggs and Foster, on the other hand, would appear to be waiting for Hirst to die – which, as the play ends, he seems to be doing.
When No Man’s Land was first performed in 1975, John Gielgud played Spooner and Ralph Richardson was Hirst – a double act hard to forget, even harder to follow, and pointless to compare with succeeding casts.
Gambon’s glazed introspection as he peers silently into the middle-distance contemplating ‘the last lap of a race I had long forgotten to run’, is extraordinarily moving and contrasts brilliantly with his stealthier more buoyant moments when, after a good night’s sleep, he bounds into view with an energy and a sprightly playfulness (albeit short-lived) unseen until this point.
Bradley’s crumpled, delusional Spooner whose every wrinkle speaks of failure and failed potential, is very moving too, a muted cello to Gambon’s periodic, trumpet-like outbursts.
Walliams and Dunning are appropriately sinister as Hirst’s manservants, and exude a homoerotic frisson echoed in a production by wunderkind Rupert Goold, that never allows the play’s fair share of laughter to upstage the darkness at its heart.
CLIVE HIRSCHHORN. Courtesy of This Is London.