The last time I was at the Bille Brown Studio some weeks back it was in an unholy mess – the lads and lasses from The Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Company had seen to that during the course of I Feel Awful. I wrote afterwards of feeling sorry for the stage management team who had to clean up after every performance.
Last night I walked back into an altogether different space. Designer Robert Kemp has transformed the BB’s minimalist black into the cosy living room of an upper middle class London home – the kind you see in movies where the whisky comes in cut glass tumblers and the soda splashes out of siphons. This is old-fashioned (if shabby) gentility on display. There is a huge back wall of bookshelves (complete with a secret entrance), a very well-stocked drinks cabinet. Rugs adorn the polished wood floor, and lamps of all kinds are on the shelves. There’s a comfy club chair to lounge in and, to complete the picture, a couple of China dogs – those most-assuredly English mantelpiece adornments. Get the picture? It’s all for No Man’s Land, Harold Pinter’s marvellous play about the decay of the British Empire – or is it? One is never quite sure with Pinter. However, I took my cue from the character Spooner (Peter Carroll) who leaps with delight as a metaphor escapes from the lips of Hirst (John Gaden) during the course of their extraordinary encounter in Hirst’s living room. With Pinter, you take all the clues you can get. Metaphors aside, the odd couple have met up on Hampstead Heath, and Spooner, a snowy-haired, greasy-suited pixie of a con-man – clearly fallen on harder times – has inveigled his way into the staid Hirst’s home for a drink and a chat. What happens after that is the substance of the play.
The Pinter trademarks are all there in No Man’s Land: characters confined to a single room, mysterious arrivals, and the sense of menace in the air – even the towering shelves look as though they could collapse inwards and bury the protagonists. And then there’s the linguistic relish of dialogue which winds itself around Pinter’s favourite themes – memory, power and sexuality. However, in this production, the Pinter-esque pauses, beats and often lugubrious silences which pepper his plays – seem hardly noticeable. Either they’re not indicated in this particular script, or Michael Gow has decided to ignore them in the playing. Good decision.
The direction sets a cracking pace – 95 minutes without an interval – and it produces a delightfully quick-witted interpretation of a play which is also composed of plenty of darkness and no small amount of sombre inflection if that’s the way you want to go. What happens in this production is an emphasis of the light and the quick over the dark and the heavy, and it works wonderfully well. It is a refreshing contemporary take on a modern classic.
Michael Gow has wanted to direct this play for a long time and he’s cast it superbly. I can’t think of a better pairing than these two fine actors in the central roles of Pinter’s demanding play. They carve up the text and serve it with relish. Dangle a metaphor before Peter Carroll or a linguistic double-entendre before John Gaden and stand back. Their performances are nothing less than a combined master class in comic timing, stage craft, and the mastery of Pinter’s periphrastic turns of phrase and juicy linguistic circumlocution – yes, it’s like that at times, only really, really funny.
These two nimble-footed veterans are joined by the two lurking lads about the place who appear to be butler-manservant and carer-keeper. The performance space wasn’t the only thing transformed in this production. There is an almost-unrecognisable Andrew Buchanan as Briggs; he’s boof-headed and buffed and, my God, those arms, that chest! His sidekick Foster, the dangerously-silky, Chav-like enigma is played by a manscaped, elegantly oily Steven Rooke. Messrs Buchanan and Rooke, two of Brisbane’s best younger actors, are terrific matches for their elder colleagues; theirs are wonderfully original and sure characterisations.
This is the first time No Man’s Land has been performed professionally in Australia. Queensland Theatre Company’s co-production with Sydney Theatre Company is a ripper of a show. Don’t miss it.
No Man’s Land by Harold Pinter
Bille Brown Studio, Brisbane 19 Sept-22 Oct
Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House 1 Nov-7 Dec (Check STC website for session times and details)
Director: Michael Gow; Designer: Robert Kemp; Lighting Designer: Nick Schlieper; Sound Designer: Tony Brumpton