No Man's Land is made for theatre's knights. Though perhaps not Pinter's very best play – my personal favourite, mind – it has pulled in the most extraordinary pairings. Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud. Corin Redgrave and John Wood. Michael Gambon and David Bradley. The balance is always the same: Hirst, starched and stern; Spooner, softer and shambling.
Having previously goofed through Godot, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen mix that formula up. Having met on Hampstead Heath – maybe boozing, maybe cruising – the pair head back to Hirst's for more, watched over by his manservants Foster and Briggs. The mood sours. The night drags on, predatory and purgatorial. As it does, Sean Mathias' staging suggests the two men seem to shapeshift. A cryptic play becomes all the more slippery.
Stewart, in particular, never settles. His Hirst can be flinty, silent and still as a rock, but propped up in his armchair, bald and sinewy, he finds moments of utter frailty too: a skeleton haunted by death, heading into dementia. He drifts in and out of the room, too hammered to hear, as McKellen's Spooner, one trouser leg always caught in a sock, witters on, spouting crap poetry and fawning flattery. He is all blag: posturing as philosopher, but lacking profundity. The two young men look on: Owen Teale's burly Briggs horrified, aware that they are his future, Damien Moloney's caddish Foster, oblivious, too young to see himself in their shoes.
Behind the old-school absurdism, the woozy non-sequitors that are so unmistakably Pinter's, No Man's Land seems a strikingly modern play: a swirling study in masculinity and mortality. It's there in two old boys, their friends dropping like flies, forced to make do with one another's company; in the undercurrent of lustless sex beneath the surface; in the deep, deadbeat gloom that descends by night, best numbed by neat spirits. Stark, strange images swim through it: Teale's brutish Briggs squeezed into a pinny; Hirst crawling to bed like a baby. The talk is of cricket and highwaymen, of old flames and younger selves.
Mathias pulls one thing out above all: the difference between night and day, between the selves we are and the versions we present. If, at night, identity seems unstable, come daybreak, the fronts go back up: spick suits and friendly formalities. By morning, Stewart's Hirst is the consummate blagger, only ever half-listening but bluffing a buddyish familiarity. Spooner, bamboozled at first, ups the game and out-blags him. This is how men make it, he suggests – by faking it; their night-time terrors and animal urges concealed beneath buttoned-up propriety. Telling that Stephen Brimson-Lewis shows the stuffing behind the portcullis-like walls. Masculinity is a prison; purgatory before death. It is no man's land: unchanging, ever-present, "forever icy and silent."
Lighting lets it down, though – criminal for a play so infused with its imagery. In Pinter's play, light dwindles and dies, gets shut out and floods back in. Its memories are made of light: shadowy faces in flashbulb photographs, sunlight glinting on waterfalls. Yet Peter Kaczorowski flushes it in front-on, hardly directional, never specific. As such, Hirst's home is always a stage, never a room, still less a limbo. Curtains are pulled to, and darkness drops like a powercut. Table lamps are just props in vague spotlights. The menace goes missing and for any Pinter, but especially this, that's fatal.