A half-empty snowbound local cinema was the ideal place to catch a repeat NTlive showing of Pinter's masterpiece dealing with the icy wastes of dementia and the loss of memory. Of course, that's not the only way to understand No Man's Land, but it's the one that jumps out most strongly from Sean Mathias's excellent production.
I'm lucky enough to have caught several productions of this play, beginning with the original starring Sir Ralph Richardson as Hirst and a besandalled Sir John Gielgud as Spooner, and I've seen the alcohol-soaked literary duo played by Corin Redgrave and John Wood and more recently by Michael Gambon and David Bradley. McKellen, constantly in movement, cuddling a whisky bottle and shuffling his raincoat, brings a wonderful physicality to the role of Spooner while matching Gielgud's vocal phrasing. Stewart combines a catatonic stillness in the opening scene with a sudden and unexpected fluency of speech in the second half of the play. But the fluency, sometimes characteristic of people with dementia, is completely false. His memory is shot to pieces. Stuart suggests a man who is just on the cusp of awareness that his faculties are failing, and who feels the need to take the offensive but cannot quite succeed.
Mathias uses a circular set which has shades of a prison to incarcerate his characters. He brings out the playfulness and the humour in Pinter's writing without going for too many laughs, but he also avoids the pitfall of over-stressing the latent violence displayed by Hirst's two sinister housekeepers. The result is a superb balance that brings out the play's many subtexts. McKellen and Stuart have never done anything finer.