There's a story that has recently been doing the rounds in New York of two strangers, both of whom had just seen the Broadway revival of Samuel Beckett’s 1953 tragicomic Waiting for Godot at the Cort Theatre, who were so overwhelmed with emotion that they hugged each other on the pavement of West 48th Street.
Watching Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Godot and Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, didn’t quite induce me to that state but I fully understand the reaction of those overwhelmed patrons.
These two exquisite productions, in serving up profound mediations on reality, loneliness, rivalry and mortality, make a compelling case for the ways that theatre can shed light on the human condition. And what fun that Stewart and McKellen- wonderfully directed by Sean Mathias- have along the way. The pair are close friends but their terrific onstage dynamic never lapses into ostentatious chumminess.
Stewart and McKellen in Waiting for Godot generated mixed reviews when they originally performed the play in the West End and UK for exaggerating the humour at the expense of Beckett’s message of despair. You still feel that the vagrants Vladimir (Stewart) and Estragon (McKellen) are having too grand a time as they wait for Godot who never arrives. But since Mathias and designer Stephen Brimson Lewis have set the play underneath a theatre’s decaying proscenium arch, it’s not far-fetched that two seemingly resting actors would put so brave a face on failure.
McKellen’s Estragon is arch and showy, an effective counterweight to Stewart’s mournful and melancholy Vladimir. They’re aided by fantastic supporting turns from a bullying Pozzo (Shuler Hensley) and his hapless slave Lucky (Billy Crudup.)
No Man’s Land manages to outshine a very good Godot. Both are elliptical works unfolding within a state of limbo but whereas both Beckett’s work focuses on human connection, Pinter’s 1975 play revolves around awkward rejection. No Man’s Land is quintessential Pinter thrusting us in a world of male power games and menacing misunderstanding.
Spooner (McKellen), a poet, is invited back to the house of Hirst (Stewart), a more successful writer he meets on Hampstead Heath. Both McKellen and Stewart brilliantly immerse themselves into complicated characters. McKellen shifts Spooner from a swaggering elitist- confidently describing himself at the outset as a man of “intelligence and perception”- to a degenerate shambles. Stewart’s Hirst, a rich poet crippled by alcoholism, is by turns pathetic and powerful.
Mathias’ production expertly captures the poetry contained in Pinter’s psychological study of both sides of the creative coin being consumed by struggle and failure, trapped in a No Man’s Land “which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever icy and silent”.
Here Crudup and Hensley prove less effective as Hirst’s secretary Foster and bodyguard Briggs who take exception at Spooner’s arrival. They both look the part but the American Crudup, in the performance I saw, attempted a cockney accent that painfully sounded like a Dutchman impersonating Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins while Hensley was insufficiently thuggish in his vocal delivery. Yet their shortcomings paradoxically reinforce the majestic duel between Spooner and Hirst which defines this unforgettable production.
It is to be hoped that Mathias, McKellen and Stewart bring No Man’s Land to London. It takes something special for complex and challenging works featuring elderly tramps and North London men of letters to get Broadway buzzing. Stewart and McKellen have done it in style.
No Man’s Land and Waiting for Godot are on at the Cort Theatre until 2nd March