by request: the sugarland express (steven spielberg, 1974)
music friday, 1967 edition

harold pinter's no man's land

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.



Ah! Interesting. Haven't read that Pinter but read my share. Will have to give that one a look. So glad you got to see it even, yes, if only to say you saw it with that cast. Not often the Bay Area gets the big celebs in full productions. Although, being in a city where the TV/Film people do end up in plays more frequently, it's not always to the production's benefit. The Aurora in Berkeley did a production of 'The Birthday Party' some years back with one of the Bay's best actors, Jim Carpenter, in the lead that was lauded as fantastic. Didn't catch it myself but one of Pinter's more popular plays. Worked with Jim in that 'King Lear' in...'07 was it? Holy crap, that's almost six years now...

Steven Rubio

It's funny, I offered up a theory to Robin last night that included you and King Lear. It was before the play started, and I was thinking, if being in your 70s is like what I'm experiencing at 60, only worse, then I wonder how easy it is for Stewart and McKellen to learn their lines. Which led me to think about Lear. You can't really play the part until you're at the age when you have a hard time memorizing the part, and Lear isn't exactly the easiest part to learn in any event. So I decided you had to start memorizing it when you were young, which led me to imagine Arthur Keng learning a scene or two each year, so by the time you were old enough to play Lear, you'd know the part backwards and forwards, old age be damned.


Haha, couldn't hurt! And there are worse plays to read on a consistent basis. I think the accepted wisdom is that when a theatre actor of appropriate stature and notoriety starts approaching that age where Lear becomes a possibility they start learning the role in their downtime just in case. And when they start reaching the point where they're ready to kick it they learn Prospero.


Wow, nice combination of actors and context. I saw Stewart, McKellen, AND my first Pinter show when in London but not in combination. Stewart was performing a one-man show of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" (which was, essentially, him reciting the whole book in a theatrical manner). McKellen was performing in drag as the Dame Twanky in a pantomime performance of Aladdin at the Old Vic. The Pinter show was "Celebration" staged with the performers on-book in recognition of Pinter's Nobel win. Seeing performers read from their scripts in The West End is rather a strange situation but when the cast consists of the likes of Michael Gambon, Joanna Lumley, Jeremy Irons, and Sinead Cusack, even jaded West-End frequenters (even Patrick Stewart who sat three rows in front of me) are willing to fork over the ticket price.

In other news, I *just* finished Generation Kill and all I can remember is that Vampire Erik and Castle's Esposito were really good and that War makes people crazy. Or attracts crazy people. Either way, I'm thoroughly depressed now.

Steven Rubio

Your description of seeing Stewart, McKellen, and Pinter on the same trip to London reminds me of how I tell the story of the day I attended Wimbledon. I saw John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Of course, it was McEnroe on Centre Court against some nobody, and Connors on Court #1 against some other nobody, but who's counting?


It's all about how you tell a story, right?

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