REVIEWSno-mans-landDrama on screen at the Kino Teatr

Review by Elizabeth Allen

The innovation of screening live stage performances, drama and opera, and so making them widely available, has unarguably proved hugely popular. We can now see and hear stellar casts in performances sold out from the day booking opened, without paying stellar prices. And good news that, with the showing of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, starring Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart, Kino Teatr, has made the offer even more attractive for drama lovers in Hastings.

The play offers us two old soaks, Hirst (Stewart) a writer with a Hampstead mansion and Spooner (McKellan), a failure anxious to establish connection – as rival, servant, agent? – with success and free-flowing alcohol. Hirst’s household, is made up of two of those menacing men, here played by Owen Teale and Damien Molony who always lurk in Pinterland: here characterized as a no man’s land which, as Spooner says in the play’s closing lines: ‘never moves, which never changes, which will never grow older, but whic which remains forever icy, and silent,

So what is this about and does it, forty years after its first production, still shock and disturb?

(First productions of Pinter often outraged audiences. As a schoolgirl I was desperate with embarrassment when my mother refused to applaud The Homecoming. ‘Mummy, you must clap.’ ‘I most certainly won’t.’) And since the screen version inevitably offers a different experience, does this have any downsides?

Pinter has always been wary of ascribing meaning. In an early essay he wrote: ‘The context has always been, for me, concrete and particular. I’ve never started a play with any kind of abstract theory or idea.’ Many years later he declared ‘I am essentially a poet’ and has generally been understood as intuitive rather than conceptual: mood rather than meaning.

No Man’s Land is classic Pinter territory: the creepy quotidian, figures of sinister authority, of degradation and abjection, silences interspersed by mad rivers of words, the insecure boundary between reality and fantasy. And comedy always threatening to tip into violence. Even today, while less unwilling to applaud, the audience seems unsure of how to respond to swings in mood and dramatic style, to verbal violence – in 2016 is the use of the c word really a cause for nervous laughter?

What is the effect of the intervention of the screen? Here we experience the rather different, more strongly signalled, form of acting required in a theatre. While this difference may be less marked in Shakespearean productions, the Pinter effect, depending so strongly on the juxtaposition of the banal and the bizarre, calls for a relatively naturalistic style. Here the early scenes of drunkenness felt rather too conventional and music hall. Then there is the dictatorship of the medium. In a theatre you might decide to focus on Hirst’s response to one of Spooner’s entertaining monologues; here the camera insists that you watch Spooner. Is there not a case for the camera sitting in the best central seat in the stalls, allowing the democracy of the wandering gaze?

‘The audience transforms the event every night,’ affirmed Patrick Stewart in the after-play discussion. Was that just the audience in London? Or the watchers in St Leonards too.?