I have spent the evening watching other people drink and abuse each other, and isn’t that what the days before Christmas are all about?
The experience of watching theatre live is brilliantly recreated when you go to see a play broadcast in a cinema. People cough at the most inopportune times, the rattling of plastic sweet wrappers is in THX, and the last people to arrive are the ones who are sat right in the middle of the row who have a neat line in very English apology.
This post fact world has made meaning increasingly elusive, so it’s a good time to watch a Pinter play. At £150 a seat for the live version, I decided that I would save £270 and go and see No Man’s Land on a screen. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are deemed our mightiest theatricals. I have been fortunate enough to be complimented on a joke by one at a secular do, and sat next to the other when he put a meteorite sample in the shade by pulling out his communicator badge. You see if you can work out which one did which.
The play is simple to summarise in terms of situation, but not in meaning. Two boozed men, one a successful writer, the other a down on his luck poet, drink heavily. Then, Pinter’s enigmatic tough guys come in and say, “cunt” and “cunts” and add a weight of threat. Then, there’s some more drinking, some revelation that may consist of half ghosts and confused memories, then there’s the slow fade as you hear the author say, “you work it out”.
It is a pleasant experience on the screen, which means that the transfer from live to transmitted doesn’t quite work, but you know that when you go in with your miserly, “I’ll save £270” attitude.
You are seeing a record of the event, so you cannot experience the tension of the event itself. Then you can play it back in your mind over the years, and as your grasp on truth and reality weakens, you can believe you really saw Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart performing in the flesh.
There is an incredible amount of drinking in this play. If the booze in the bottles was real, the actors would be off the end of the stage before they were 20 minutes into the first half. I started to worry about the quantity of apple juice acid that would be stripping away the enamel of the two sirs.
Ian McKellen has a wonderful, artful clumsiness that conveys the lower hand drinking at a wealthy table he rarely visits anymore, if indeed, he ever really visited much in the past. His clowning quality and rich array of comic faces remind you of why he was so good in Waiting for Godot. Patrick Stewart conveys the stillness that can come with success, the composure of comfort, suddenly broken my possible memories or jabs that briefly knock him from his position of rich comfort and sense of personal achievement.
Owen Teale and Damien Molony play “the servants” with Janus faces. The usual questions arise with their mix of menace, cultivation and the uncertainty of their real status in the household.
There is no easy out here. Sometimes, as disappointing as it would be, you may fancy an ending just so it makes sense. “You wish you were in hell, Spooner? Hahahaha, well guess what, you’ve been in hell all the time!!” or that moment you find out that everyone else in the room is a ghost or that everyone is in an asylum. You know, then the audience (California drawl) has closure. Because life so often doesn’t make the meaning clear, people can get antsy when the two hours they’ve paid for doesn’t given them the one neat ending their life has that week. The older I get, the more I like the “what the fuck did that all mean” ending. It gives me my money’s worth to know it’s not over for me when it’s over, I’ve still got work to do. I loved the division in the audience’s facial expression at the end of John Sayle’s Limbo. There are two very different ways of saying, “what the hell happened?”
What if I think I’ve worked the meaning of No Man’s Land out? It could be dangerous, because if I get it wrong (or maybe right), I may spend the rest of my life perpetually pickling myself in Macallan Whisky, but that might be for the best. This may be the time to scurry away from emotion by secreting yourself in a bottle.
Dead Funny Encore, with stories by Stewart Lee, Alan Moore, Josie Long, Alice Lowe and many more is available NOW.
My final DVD, containing 4 shows, is available here (and also for download)