After a chance encounter on Hampstead Heath, two isolated middle-aged men spend a drunken evening together, delivering their evasive words with striking precision in Harold Pinter’s 1975 play, “No Man’s Land.” This study in ambiguity is heightened in Rupert Goold’s finely tuned production for the Gate Theater, Dublin, which transfers to a London run starting Oct. 7 at the Duke of York’s Theater.
Reality and fantasy vie for the upper hand in the conversation between sleekly successful writer Hirst (Michael Gambon) and his shabby guest Spooner (David Bradley), a self-proclaimed poet. Although their literary work is mentioned, the play is less concerned with the art of writing than with role-playing and improvisation, with Gambon’s performance capitalizing on its potential as a master class in acting.
Initially taciturn, Hirst concentrates on his drinking with slow, exaggerated movements. He reacts to Spooner’s opaque declarations with a playfully raised eyebrow or a grimace, commanding our attention.
Pinter’s text teases the audience in the opening scene, seeming to offer some clarity in the midst of evasions. “The point I’m trying to make, in case you’ve missed it, is that I’m a free man,” Spooner declares. But we’re none the wiser about him. He could be a genteel but impoverished poet or the bar-hand from a local pub.
Giles Cadle’s set presents a darkly upholstered, impersonal room, dominated by a bar. While reminiscent of a gentleman’s club, its deep green and red tones evoke a twilight world between reality and nightmare.
The entire encounter, including its sequel the following morning, has the quality of a dream — with its non sequiturs and deceptive sense of apparent logic, and the comic effects of the men’s shared reminiscences of perfect English summers and wives, of cottages in the country and tea on the lawn. The irruption into the scene of Hirst’s loyal servants-cum-henchmen, Briggs (Nick Dunning) and Foster (David Walliams), adds another layer of mystery, tinged with menace.
The performances are crucial to this surreal tone: Dunning is perfectly poised, both slyly obsequious and threatening, while television star Walliams (“Little Britain”) is initially comic but doesn’t sustain the same fine balance.
Bradley brings a watchful responsiveness to the elusive role of Spooner. Alternately assertive and insecure, he conveys a survivor’s instinct for self-preservation, while remaining clearly vulnerable to the threat of violence from Briggs and Foster. He appears genuinely surprised the following morning when Hirst, in a newly ebullient mood, seems to mistake him for an Oxford acquaintance.
In a highly comic, stiff-upper-lip sequence, he quickly embarks on his own game of remembering an invented past, deftly introducing the information he has just gleaned from Briggs and Foster about his host’s literary fame.
“Who are you? What are you doing in my house?” Hirst eventually demands of Spooner, seeming to be speaking plainly at last. From that moment, Bradley appears to fade away, as the day closes in and light drains from the stage. His plea to be employed in Hirst’s household seems too self-effacing to have any hope of success and the balance of power shifts irrevocably, making this reading of the play less open-ended than usual.
Gambon’s Hirst remains the dominant presence, memorably expressing a life of clamorous rather than quiet desperation. Stuck in his arrested memories, he is haunted by the vision of failure that confronts him in the shape of Spooner — or in his own subconscious.