By Lisa Bauman
On Nov. 4th, 2011 a production of No Man's Land by Harold Pinter was preformed staring Allen Nause and Oscar-winner William Hurt at the Artists Repertory Theatre. There are four characters in the play. Hirst (played by Nause) and Spooner (played by Hurt) are both poets. Hirst is a successful, but raging alcoholic. Spooner is a failure. Foster and Briggs serve Hirst in his upper-class home in Hampstead as an amanuensis and a servant or bodyguard.
The four characters meet when Spooner comes to Hirst's home for a drink after meeting in a pub (fig 1). Later, the audience discovers that Spooner and Hirst may know each other from the university. This is never determined defiantly because Hirst moves in and out of coherency between drinking binges. Hirst sometimes does not recognize Spooner. Other times he recalls memories of their friendship from decades past. Soon, a conflict is built between Spooner and Hirst's two friends. Spooner wants to take Foster's position as amanuensis and Briggs wants things to remain the same. Still, the issue is not spoken of until the final scene. The audience is left to merely feel the tension and interpret the deeper meaning of the events in their own way.
Because of the cerebral nature of the play, it required a more academic type of audience. Some audience members who attended this showing fell asleep and one man even began to snore. Fortunately, these particular audience members left at the intermission. Act two was not disrupted.
The actors were given the task of bringing the script to life on mostly their own merit. The quality of acting in this play became very important because of the simplicity of the context. Physical action, extra characters, and elaborate effects were unavailable. The plot and setting consisted mostly of dialog and occurred within one room.
The set consisted of one room furnished in fine décor to represent Hirst's home in Hampstead. The room was positioned in the center of the theatre and the audience sloped upward from the ground. Most of the audience peered down into this circular room to see the scenes. This made some of the important dialog difficult to hear; especially if the lines were spoken quickly. This became a problem because Hirst's character changed ideas and context often and suddenly between the alcoholic binges being portrayed.
Like the set, special effects such as lighting and sound were very minimal (fig 2). Several times lighting was used to portray the sun shining through the window. The effect was very believable. In one scene Hirst moves to the window and opens the blind. The light was perfectly timed and very realistic. Also, a bell sound was used for the ringing of the phone. Humorously, the ring was different the second time the phone sounded in the play. Despite this inconsistency, the actors moved through the scene undisrupted.
The props were very ordinary, but fundamental in the play. For instance, in one scene, Briggs locks Spooner into a room where he stays overnight against his will. The next morning Briggs brings Spooner a fine meal served in silver dishes (fig. 3). Spooner appears entirely astonished at Briggs' actions, but the fine dishes and meal persuade him to sit. This prop was important to help the audience understand the situation, but also to communicate Spooner's character. Spooner is looking for a way out of his financial and poetic failure; he is not focused on the long-term. He wants immediate gratification or inspiration.
The most important prop in the play was the liquor bottles. Clearly, Hirst has found his salve for his wounds here. Whenever Hirst is unhappy or angry, Briggs and Foster obey his commands for "more drink." The more agitated Hirst appears, the more alcohol he consumes. Additionally, whenever someone else appears unpleasant, Hirst insists on giving them a drink.
Hirst's alcoholism represented his intentional blindness to the pain of his life or reality. "No Man's Land" for Hirst was his booze-induced stupor. Hirst changed costumes often; much like his character's demeanor. One moment the character would have a groomed appearance; wearing a fine suit and shoes. The next moment he would look wild from drunkenness; with disheveled hair. He would become so intoxicated that he would end up crawling to exit a scene. Nause realistically portrayed the change from sober to intoxicated in such a natural way that the sudden changes of Hirst's character did not cause a disruption in the plot.
Spooner wore a cheap suit and winter clothing; giving the impression of homelessness (fig 4). His suit was wrinkled and looked as though it had been slept in. He held himself in a shifty manner and stood while others were sitting. He prepared to leave several times in a scene by putting on his hat and coat, passing around the room and looking into boxes on the mantle. It appeared that he was looking for an opportunity to escape or discover something. Symbolically, Spooner was seeking to escape his poor fortune by any means necessary. His "No Man's Land" was his endless search to fulfill his poetic dream and his inability or inadequacy to do so.
Foster and Briggs are unlikely characters to be with such a wealthy, literary genius and they know it. Briggs especially protects his position as body guard both verbally and physically. Briggs' "No Man's Land" is his world, where he continually tries to take what he wants by force, but desires peace and tranquility. He makes several aggressive movements aimed at Spooner, and even Hirst (fig. 5). Still, he shows kindness to Spooner, preference to Foster, and loyalty to Hirst. The actor successfully expressed Briggs' contrasting violent tendencies and kindness.
Foster portrays a meeker, yet ironically cockier character than Briggs (fig 6). Foster is well-groomed and wears a fake leather jacket; playing the part of a "play boy." He makes references to his adventure before he became Hirst's amanuensis. When Hirst appears to be considering Spooner's offer to take Foster's place as amanuensis, Foster looks hurt. Foster's "No Man's Land" is an exhaustingly dutiful and charmed life with no benefit.
The play is left open for audiences' interpretation in the final scene following Pinter's tradition for creating "a commonplace situation … with menace and mystery through the deliberate omission of an explanation or motivation for the action (Esslin)." Hirst insists on a subject change and begins lustfully drinking. Spooner then declares that they are all "in no man's land which never moves," changes, or grows older, "but which remains forever icy and silent." Hirst responds "I'll drink to that." and the lights on stage go black (No Man's Land).
I believe that Pinter is trying to communicate a common theme in the theatre of the absurd. He is showing that we have no control over what our fate will be. We exhaustively try to escape pain like Hirst, failure like Spooner, powerlessness like Briggs, and meaninglessness like Foster, but we cannot escape gritty, ironic reality.
Esslin, Martin . The Theatre of the Absurd. Random House Digital, Inc., 2009. eBook.
Faith Cathcart. Artists Repertory Theatre's production of "No Man's Land". 2011.
Photographs 1-6. The Oregonian , Portland. Web. 14 Nov 2011. http://photos.oregonlive.com/oregonian/2011/10/artists_repertory_theatres_pro_8.html.
"No Man's Land." Artists Repertory Theatre. Portland, Oregon. 4 Nov. 2011. Play.
** A play review for ENG105, Introduction to Drama, Fall Term 2011, Portland Community College
By Lisa Bauman