Here are a few items gleaned from the Wikipedia page for Harold Pinter’s play, No Man’s Land.
Michael Billington, who wrote an authorized biography of Pinter, admits that he can never fully understand No Man’s Land. “Who can?”, he asks. Critic Michael Coveney, who found the play “gloriously enjoyable”, nonetheless asks, “Yes, but what does it all mean?” He also referred to Kenneth Turan’s claim that the play was full of “gratuitous obscurity”. And critic Paul Taylor takes “Pinter virgins” to see the play … one says “Obscure and exhausting”, another wonders “Where’s the joke?”
Longtime readers know that I am not a fan of “gratuitous obscurity”, although I’m less bothered by the gratuitous possibilities. I just don’t like what seems like purposeful obscurity. It’s just a taste preference of mine: I don’t mind having to think about a movie, don’t object to movies that have a core that lies hidden beneath the surface, but wonder why I should bother watching something that is made to frustrate my understanding of what I am seeing.
In short, while I didn’t know until I’d seen it, No Man’s Land is not likely to be my cup of tea.
We attended a preview performance of the play (now at Berkeley Rep, on its way to Broadway) for the shallowest of reasons. The lead actors are Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. We’ve gone to other star turns at Berkeley Rep in the past. My wife’s favorite might have been the one with Mandy Patinkin, because she has always loved Mandy Patinkin, and she is also a fan of the X-Men, so it’s not much of a stretch to know we would find ourselves at a play starring Professor X and Magneto. It was an added bonus when we learned that Billy Crudup would also be in the play. Robin was initially hesitant, saying she wasn’t a big fan of Harold Pinter, but soon enough, we had our tickets (reasonably priced, too, since it was one of the preview shows … thanks to our friend Arthur for explaining that a preview would be just fine).
It is a credit to both McKellen and Stewart that I soon forgot I was watching Gandalf and Jean-Luc Picard. Stewart was wearing a toupee that was distracting because it reminded me of the actor’s shaven head, while McKellen’s suitably shabby clothes had no such problem. But they entered their roles with enthusiasm, and they were fine throughout. Stewart’s voice can lead him astray on occasion … he has such a powerful speaking voice that it’s not always easy for him to crank it down a bit (although he is not a ham … he doesn’t try to grab the stage at the expense of the play, he just has a big voice). And we were close enough for Robin to claim that she could tell Stewart has worse arthritis in his hands than I do (which, it turns out, is true). But these were all just tidbits, not things that overwhelmed the experience of watching the play.
Ah, the play. The first act was intriguing … clearly it was a character study, not a plot-driven tale, but the characters were interesting and the acting was good. The second act, though … I was thrown for a loop fairly early on, and realized that, character study or not, I am enough of a sucker for narrative that I was almost completely thrown off by the fact that I no longer understood what was going on. The play became less intriguing and more frustrating. As usual, in our post-mortem, Robin explained the play for me, at least her interpretation, which is as good as any. She never seems to get lost in plot intricacies, the way I do.
I hadn’t yet read the Wikipedia article. If I had, I might have known that “what does it all mean” and “gratuitous obscurity” were warning signs for someone like me. I disagree with the person who wondered where the joke was, though. I mean, I still don’t know what the damn thing was about, and I don’t have the slightest idea what the overarching “joke” was, or even if one existed. But there were many funny moments throughout the play … on a couple of occasions, the actors had to pause until the audience quit laughing, and I could swear there was a scene where Stewart was having trouble not laughing, himself.
Am I glad I went? Sure, it was only two hours out of my life, and I got to see something special in the casting. Billy Crudup was good, although when he smiled during the curtain calls, I thought, “he’s the guy from Almost Famous, only with short hair, I have to watch that movie again”. Shuler Hensley, the “unknown” cast member, was as good as everyone else (“unknown” meaning “unknown to someone who doesn’t pay much attention to theater”, since he is an award-winning stage actor). But five years from now, the two things I’ll most remember are that I once saw McKellen and Stewart together on stage, and that I don’t much care for Pinter’s No Man’s Land.