Sean Mathias, director of No Man’s Land, first saw the play on its opening night in 1975. In 2016 he directed the production, with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart as Spooner and Hirst, playing to an audience in Wyndham’s Theatre and an audience worldwide for its National Theatre Live cinema broadcast.
What inspired you to direct No Man’s Land?
It’s a play I’ve wanted to do for many years. I tried to do it twice over the last 20 years, before this production, but the auspices did not align on either occasion. And then Patrick Stewart asked me to do it. While he was in Waiting for Godot, he said he would love me to direct him in No Man’s Land. That’s what started the ball rolling – and it was third time lucky.
Why did you want to pair the play with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot?
The pairing came about in a more pragmatic way. Patrick wanted to do No Man’s Land but not doGodot again, and Ian wanted to do Godot in America but wasn’t convinced that he should do No Man’s Land because he felt that John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, the original Spooner and Hirst in the 1975 production, had left such a strong mark on it. So it was a matter of give and take.
But they are also a brilliant pairing of plays, because Beckett was a big influence on Pinter’s life: Pinter sent all his plays to Beckett for his opinion. You also need four actors for each play – so the two other characters could be played by the same actors. So suddenly it all seemed to make a lot of sense – both artistically and pragmatically.
Do you have a particular favourite line or exchange from No Man’s Land?
‘What happened to them? What happened to our cottages? What happened to our lawns?’
The line sounds so banal, so ordinary, very prosaic – but it turns out to be a great statement about loss. What has happened to those pasts, to the accoutrements of life. What has happened to one’s success, to one’s family, to one’s history. I think the play is full of similar lines. Pinter uses these illustrations a lot which on the surface seem to be about one thing but actually take you down another path altogether.
How does directing a play by Pinter differ from directing the work of any other playwright?
It’s Pinter’s precision. The play is so precise and delicate. It’s full of nuance and full of poetry. But you have to be very delicate with it. You can’t manhandle this play, you can’t treat it too roughly.
Pinter notoriously includes lots of stage directions for his characters. As a director, is that challenging or helpful?
It’s fairly helpful for a director. The problem with stage directions is that they’re often not the author’s, they are added in over years by stage managers; but if you know that they are the author’s intention that’s a different matter.
Apart from No Man’s Land, what has been your favourite production to direct?
That’s tough. There have been a few. Les Parents Terribles (1994, National Theatre) by Jean Cocteau would be one of them. A Little Night Music (1995, National Theatre). Waiting for Godot (2009, Theatre Royal Haymarket). Those three stand out.
What advice would you give to aspiring directors?
Read as many plays as you can. Read as much as you can, and see as much theatre as you can.
What’s next after No Man’s Land?
I’m doing The Exorcist in the West End next year, and I’m doing a new play by Martin Sherman in New York.
Hirst and Spooner drink a lot of alcohol over the course of No Man’s Land. Of their drinks of choice, which is yours – whisky or champagne?
National Theatre Live broadcast No Man’s Land to cinemas around the UK and internationally on 15 December 2016, with many venues showing Encore screenings after this date. Visit ntlive.com to find out what's screening near you soon.