Note: This review dates from December 2001 and the production's original run at the National Theatre.
In a programme note, the playwright and director Patrick Marber informs us that in London, No Man's Land has been the least revived of Pinter's full-length plays. The original production in 1975 - first at the Old Vic before transferring to the National's Lyttelton as part of its inaugural season - starred Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, who scored a great hit in it.
"This," Marber suggests, "might have made the play 'intimidating' for others to follow." Only Harold Pinter himself, starring opposite the late Paul Eddington in an Almeida production in 1993, has therefore risen to the task until now. But secondly, Marber offers, "the play itself is famously 'difficult'. It is, perhaps, the most peculiar of Pinter's plays."
To which one can only reply: Not half! But Marber attempts more. Calling it as "a necessary component of the play's architecture and composition that it remains unknowable", he goes on - "it is as clear and as lucid as a dream. And like a dream it resists our need to know its meaning."
The plays of Pinter are, of course, famous for the meaning residing as much between the lines as in them; but this one seems to be a template on which to project your own meanings. It means whatever you wish it to mean. As abstract as a Picasso but not nearly as intriguing, the result is numbing to watch. The air of mystery, menace and ambiguity that courses through all Pinter's plays here feels generic rather than authentic and organic.
The curtain goes up on two middle-aged men, Hirst (the grave, precise Corin Redgrave) and Spooner (the slight, edgy John Wood). They've just met on Hampstead Heath, and Hirst has brought Spooner back to his handsome drawing room (meticulously designed by Eileen Diss) for a drink. Nothing, of course, is what it seems, especially when two henchmen arrive (played by Andy de la Tour and Danny Dyer).
There's an atmosphere of undifferentiated melancholy and brooding danger in the air. But because Pinter constantly shifts the ground of the relationships between the characters, we are never sure what exactly is at stake or made to feel involved in the outcome. It feels arbitrary, not ordained.
In Pinter's own slow, dark production, it is all painfully contrived. This isn't the fault of the actors, whose devoted commitment to the proceedings is remarkable. Nobody, however, has the illuminating star power of Richardson and Gielgud. While it is sometimes said of fine actors that you would pay to hear them recite the phone book, it's probably a step too far to say that you would pay to hear them recite this painfully frustrating, wilfully obscure play.
- Mark Shenton