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Interview: Ian McKellen and Sean Mathias on Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land

We spoke to the actor and director about their long-term friendship, and about the two plays at the Cort Theatre.

Interview: Ian McKellen and Sean Mathias on Waiting for Godot and No Man's Land

The paired productions of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, currently on Broadway, offer the rare treat of seeing two 20th-century classics back to back in repertory, and the opportunity to see Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart give virtuoso displays of their considerable theatrical skills. The knighted English actors, of course, started their careers on the stage, long before they became international screen stars, best known, respectively, for the Lord of the Rings and Star Trek franchises, and, together, for their characters with super powers in the X-Men series. On Broadway, Sir Ian is collaborating with Sean Mathias, the Welsh-born director, with whom he’s enjoyed a personal, artistic, and professional relationship for over three decades. I recently talked to the actor and director about their long-term friendship, and about the two plays at the Cort Theatre.

Let’s start with Waiting for Godot, which you did previously in England, prior to pairing it with No Man’s Land. How did that come about, and why this play?

Sean Mathias: We did it in 2009. I was artistic director at the Haymarket Theater in London at the time and I asked Ian to do a play with me as part of the season. We discussed various plays, but I kept coming back to Godot because I had been trying to do it for 20 years. I had never done a play that had such a kind of bleakness to the language before; it was so spare. I also had the idea of Patrick playing opposite Ian. He turned out to be free and said yes immediately, so that’s how it came about.

Ian McKellen: I think there’s a satisfaction to having done Waiting for Godot in your life; you make a connection with the great seminal play of the 20th century, which has influenced so many other writers including Pinter. Before we did the production in London we toured it around the country. We played large theaters and we sold every single ticket. That might have been because of Professor Xavier and Magneto, but the audiences who came responded to the play with the utmost enthusiasm and total attention, and revealed to us areas of comedy that we hadn’t anticipated. It was thrilling that this play that had a history of being difficult, odd or obtuse—these ordinary theatergoers up and down the country had no problem with it; their minds were very open to it. And that would be my advice to anybody coming to see either the Beckett or the Pinter: just receive it. The answers are in your reception and experience of them, and part of what we have to do is not get in the way of the play.

SM: There’s such compassion in Godot. So when people think it’s very arty or very intellectual—yes, it contains all those elements, but it’s full of compassion and humanity.

IM: It was written at the end of the Second World War; Europe was devastated, whole cities going down. Before the play has really happened, the familiar world is gone and these two guys are on the borderline between life and death and fighting to stay alive, fighting to make sense of it all. They are hanging on. And to do it with the humor and the affection they have for each other is so humane.

Was it your idea to direct a new production of Pinter’s No Man’s Land with McKellen and Stewart, after working with them on Godot?

SM: I had tried to do the play twice before, but Ian was resistant. Pinter had given his blessing when he was alive, but it just didn’t come to fruition. It was Patrick who asked me to direct him in it and that’s how it came about. I said to Patrick, “Who do you imagine playing with you?” And he said, “Ian.” We did a reading of it and that helped us enormously. Like the Beckett, it’s a very difficult play to imagine on the stage when you read it. It has such extraordinary language and it’s hard to imagine how an actor would say these lines and be a character that we could believe in. So reading it aloud released it.

When No Man’s Land premiered in 1975, you had just begun your career with the Royal Shakespeare Company; Spooner, the role you play, was memorably created by John Gielgud, who was then around the same age as you are now. Do you feel like you are following in his footsteps?

IM: I had seen that production and I was very impressed by Gielgud in particular. It was one of the reasons why when Sean asked me to do it on a number of occasions, I said, “No, John Gielgud’s done it.” But I am glad he persevered. I mean, you’re aware of these people of your youth and it does cross your mind when you play Hamlet, “Oh, John Gielgud has already played it in three different productions.” When I played Richard II at Edinburgh Festival, the next day the papers came out with reviews and there was a telegram for me saying, “Congratulations on your review in today’s Times, John Gielgud.” And as I didn’t know him and it was one his most famous roles, that was appreciated. But no, I never felt I was in his footsteps really.

SM: I was at the opening night of the original production and it made a very strong impression on my young theatrical mind. I was hungry for the exciting things. I think it was new territory for Gielgud, this play. It must have been quite resonant having John Gielgud play that role, which starts off about meeting men on Hampstead Heath; Gielgud had famously been arrested [for solicitation].

Is this your first time playing Pinter? What’s it like?

IM: For my generation, Pinter is our contemporary. I wasn’t in his circle; I’m not a drinker and I don’t particularly go for cricket, which I think were the two qualifications! I had been in The Birthday Party, in the first amateur production, when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge; I played Stanley. Language is the first thing that perhaps comes to mind. No Man’s Land is written in a very stylish way. It’s rooted in the way that people speak in ordinary life, but with an added flourish—very colorful and very witty, ironic and funny. It’s precise language. The word Sean keeps using to us is “delicate.” My character is a poet. You have to believe yourself to be the sort of person who would speak this language.

Did you get to talk to Pinter about directing the play?

SM: Well, if you wanted to do the play, you had to go the agent and get the rights and Pinter would approve of the director. I knew him a little, maybe a little bit more than Ian, but I didn’t know him very well either. I didn’t discuss the play with him, I’d have been terrified.

IM: And he was not up for discussing. An actor once asked, “Before I come on where have I just been?” and he said, “Well you have just been in the wings waiting to come on.” Harold was not full of bullshit.

So, as actor and director, how do you figure out the mysteries of a play that’s not necessarily straight-forward with explanations?

IM: You ask those time-honored questions: What’s the character trying to do and what does he want? My character is on his uppers, he doesn’t have a bean. He only has the coat he’s carrying and he ends up in a house where the drink is free and he gets free breakfast. So he thinks, “I might stay here.” He would like the companionship and the comforts.

SM: I think you have to make sure that the characters are real people. Even if the play is in the style of Pinter, the people have to be real. It’s set in Hamsptead and we know Hampstead types. Hirst [played by Stewart] is a successful writer, or has been in his day, and Spooner is a chap who clears the beer mugs in the pub. Ian and I own a pub so we know what pub life is like. There’s a lot of the philosophy of the pub in the play. We also understand the British class system. You have two toffs and two working-class lads in this play, and even though, of the two elderly characters, one is rich and one is poor, they both come from a privileged education. In that sense, to identify and make it specific was how we approached it. Actually, it’s a play set in a drawing room, and it follows certain drawing-room-play conventions that have been followed before by Rattigan, Coward, and by Shaw. It was fascinating to find that. I thought this is weird and wonderful and poetic and unpleasant and sexual and strange, but it has got a real mannerism to it, and masks: people behaving in a certain way on the outside and feeling another way on the inside.

What’s it like working on both the Beckett and the Pinter plays together?

SM: Both plays are great puzzles, but in very different styles. What Ian says is absolutely true: What’s so exciting is that the audience has to think about them. It’s an absolutely personal response. With these plays, two people can have a totally different experience of them and they can argue about them. It’s like going to see an amazing modernist or abstract painting, or listening to a piece of music that makes you feel certain different things.

IM: You couldn’t sit through either of these plays and be indifferent. They will perk you up, better than any Red Bull or vodka!

SM: They’re both very funny as well…and entertaining.

IM: They tickle you.

While it’s a staple of the English and European theater, repertory productions are relatively rare here on Broadway. What are your thoughts about this way of working?

SM: On some days we do both plays the on the same day and the American actors in our company are as absolutely up for it as the British actors are. It basically comes from the idea of a company of actors and using the actors fairly so they all get to have different roles. It just so happens these two plays provide you with eight fabulous roles. It’s very balanced—and that’s unusual. You have got your two older leading roles and two wonderful roles. The ages are indeterminate in the Beckett, but they’re very clearly younger characters in the Pinter.

IM: You know, whatever they say, I don’t believe there ’s an actor in the world who, on a Wednesday when they know they’re going to do a matinee, doesn’t just see a hill ahead which you have to go over twice. We’re going to come in a go, “Ah, we’re going to another play this evening!” I hope there will be people who’ll want to have that experience with the actors of seeing both plays together. They’re related: Same four actors, same director, same theater, and one writer very much influenced by the other. I should say, if you’re a young person with a burgeoning interest in the theater, this is a great opportunity to see this Pinter classic and one of the greatest plays of the 20th century; and there are a limited number of inexpensive rush seats that will be available for each performance.

What’s it like working with Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley, American actors who come out of a theater tradition different from the one in which you and Stewart were trained?

IM: Well, there’s a lot of chat that goes about the difference between British acting and American acting. We tend to concede that Americans have taught us how to act in front of the camera, but we know best in the theater. But that’s all rubbish, isn’t it? Particularly because Shuler Hensley can hold the stage like a ringmaster in a circus—in Waiting for Godot he’s big enough for 20 on the Broadway stage—and he’s capable of taking it down and being very modest as he is, on the whole, in No Man’s Land. And Billy, who I have only seen once in Sean’s production of The Elephant Man, is very deft physically and vocally. I think they show their respect to the director more than perhaps I do!

Finally, would you care to talk about your own partnership over the past 35 years? First, in the late ‘70s, you were lovers, then, in the late ‘80s, you started working together as actor and director, and now, as you mentioned, you run a pub together in London…

IM: It’s going downhill…

SM: …from romance to art to business—yes, I see!

IM: Well, I can’t imagine my life without Sean, particularly because we’re such good friends and he leads such an interesting life. So it’s all hunky dory for me. I listen to him more than anybody else.

SM: Well, you certainly have driven away all the others, one by one!

IM: Yes, I mean Sean puts up with me, much more than others. Or, he doesn’t get put off by any difficulties that I present.

SM: It’s a joy to work with an amazing actor; it’s really that simple. I mean, obviously, our friendship is great. If Ian is the first person I go to with a part and he likes a project, I feel, well that’s lucky. And of course now that he’s a big star in another world, it’s harder.

IM: I would say it’s a prime example of relationships that people have. We’re constantly working with old friends and relishing that. You feel, you feel protected and you get on with it. Why look for trouble elsewhere?

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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