John Gaden and Peter Carroll in No Man's Land | Drama Theatre

The territory in dispute in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land is the rocky, treacherous terrain of memory; possibly the most misleading of the mind’s landscapes. As co-artistic directors (Andrew) Upton and (Cate) Blanchett point out in their programmatic intro, it was written, in 1975, especially for (Ralph) Richardson and (John) Gielgud. It was something of an ironic tribute to these veterans, in acute possession of their faculties, as are their subsitutes here, (John) Gaden and (Peter) Carroll.

As with the former pair, the latter are of such iconic, institutional stature in the Australian theatrical milieu, I need hardly include their first names. It was their names on the posters and releases, and Pinter’s authorship, that had me truly enthused and eager about this play. An enthusiasm and eagerness more than rewarded, especially by the performers, which also include Andrew Buchanan and Steven Rooke.

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It’s a play for those who appreciate their theatre, like their scotch, ‘as it is’. No dilution by way of any kind of correctness. Michael Gow directs, in the best hands-off tradition. At least, that’s the impression I have: that he stepped back, as much as anything, to let the masters, young and older, do their thing. Where he shows his hand is in suspension of Pinter’s more questionable excesses: his notoriously pregnant pauses, uncomfortable silences and broken rhythms. There’s the odd blackout or two, but nothing two invasive.

Presumably, Gow has seen this as excess and unhelpful to ‘selling’ the play, artistically, or commercially. It leaves a big, heavy question-mark hanging, however. Is it okay to do away with Pinter’s trademarks? But Pinter, of course, can be burdensomely dark and heavy, like cyclonic cloud buildups over an otherwise sunny landscape and, as such, very much an acquired taste; an acquired taste not likely to be acquired by all. So, I reckon Gow’s boldness is not only justifiable, but well-judged.

It’s Robert Kemp’s imposing set we see first. A wall of bookshelves that only finds parallel in the experience of we plebeians in the hallowed halls of large, civic libraries. It’s all very English club crusty, but this is the private sanctuary of one Mr Hirst, whose last worry is money; his first is hanging on to the vestiges of mental cohesion that remain. Like Mr Bojangles, he drinks a bit. A lot, actually. Scotch. Vodka. He’s not particular. And he likes it ‘as it is’. Neat. Perhaps because it’s the only compartment of his life that is neat, for the rest relies on tenuous strands of recollections built on neural pathways in need of resurfacing.

Before the play begins, he’s happened upon a down-at-heel, would-be poet and erstwhile verbose bullshit artist, much like myself. The dishevelled Mr Spooner. They’ve met during a prolonged session at the pub and repaired to Hirst’s drawing-room. One can almost smell the musty leather of bound books; the cloying aroma of cigars and port. They’re both old school. One has lucked-in to a successful life. The other, not so much. Yet, in the final reckoning of impending senility, the playing field has evened out considerably, and Spooner makes every genuflecting attempt to ingratiate himself with his richer counterpart, trying to displace the parasitic younger men waiting, anxiously, rapaciously, unashamedly, for Hirst’s will to be executed in their favour.

Ninety minutes of superb characterisation, Pinter’s trademark linguistic acrobatics, tragedy, comedy and meanness ensue. The spectre of homosexuality pervades all the relationships on stage, despite a determined effort by all to mostly pretend a hetero identity more in keeping with upper-crust standards of hypocritical morality. One is endowed with a keen sense of love-hate in the relationships; tenderness tempered with the pretence of ‘masculine’ cruelty. It’s a powerful undercurrent.

It transpires Hirst and Spooner may have known each other at university and they bicker and boast about women shared or stolen, in a fit of locker-room banter that yields to inevitable exaggeration and, probably, downright lies, built on fantasies and wet dreams. It is, of course, utterly out of step with their apparent proclivities. These are men of a certain age, trying desperately to keep themselves safely, invisibly tucked away in the closet, notwithstanding inferences and allusions to the contrary.

Neither Gaden nor Carroll disappoint, having invented (or reinvented) their respective characters and ensuring, by dint of their vocabulary of skills, they’re complete and convincing in every detail. The younger players, in Buchanan and Rooke, both guns from Brisvegas, give no quarter, though, showing these veterans of the stage don’t have it all to themselves, thanks to their correspondingly surefooted portrayals of two likely lads.

Pinter once said something along the lines of, “speech is a stratagem to cover nakedness”. He would seem to have embodied this acute observation in these characters, who only occasionally, thanks to the finesse of Gaden and Carroll especially, betray their uncertainty and vulnerability. This rarity of exposition of the innermost, of course, makes its appearance all the more poignant and terrifying: Pinter and players make it entirely possible, and practically inevitable, that we inhabit the very terror they feel. That alone is genius.

Astonishingly, perhaps, it’s only the second professional Australian production of this play. High time. And high standards apply. The highest, really.

The details: No Man’s Land plays the Sydney Opera House’s Drama Theatre until December 11. Tickets on the STC website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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