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.