I have two words for you: Ian McKellen
I have two more words for you: Patrick Stewart
I know I’m supposed to write more here, but, honestly – why bother? Other than to say that you should stop readings this review and get your butt over to the Cort – because who wants to pay service fees – and buy yourself a ticket or ten. You could buy ten and give the extras to NO ONE so that you could see these productions ten times over.
I myself want to go back – and that happens about once every billion years. I had never seen No Man’s Land but I have seen a truckload of Godot’s (including Mike Nichols’ 1988 production at Lincoln Center with F. Murray Abraham, Lukas Haas, Bill Irwin, Steve Martin, and Robin Williams and the 2009 Roundabout production with John Glover, Bill Irwin, Nathan Lane and John Goodman) – but in the light of this production they pretty much fade away. In this Waiting For Godot, under the brilliant direction of Sean Mathias, I heard lines I never heard before. And I am not alone. The entire audience was laughing at the surprising humor and heart that this cast mines from the script. In addition I think many were laughing for the same reason I was – they had never heard this text before. I suspect the same held true for No Man’s Land.
McKellen and Stewart pull the text into their bodies and return it to us as three-dimensional objects. These are no longer words, they are fully formed sentient ideas that the actors release to run about the stage unattended. As the plays progress we find ourselves knee-deep in the communities of mind and emotion that have been set loose in front of our eyes.
In both plays this extraordinary duo play men attached to one another because – well, just because. The idea of letting go is so shattering that they refuse to give it purchase on the walls of their minds. They might as well each nail one show to the floor for all the distance they will put between one another. In Godot the two are well known to one another, and in No Man’s Land the acquaintance is renewed with every entrance and exit. So skillful are these two actors that you can almost see their lines being tossed back and forth like tennis balls.
Less successful are Billy Crudup (Lucky/Foster), Shuler Hensley (Pozzo/Briggs). They accommodate themselves adequately in Godot, but in No Man’s Land they struggle not only with the accents but with focus – ours. Their acting styles, in comparison to McKellen and Stewart, are broad and lacking specificity, so one’s eye naturally drifts away from them toward the men whose performances are immaculate.
McKellen handles both plays with a fluidity that is astonishing. This is a master class in acting, period. As well, he is physically graceful even when in pain, and performs a shoe-tying trick in No Man’s Land that defies logic. Stewart is occasionally stiff in comparison but also achieves startling moments of pure magic in Godot. He fairs better with Pinter’s formality and is an extraordinary incarnation of a man suffocating in his own skin.
Together these two are not only having a spectacular time, they are ginning up some serious magic and handing it to us on a platter of pure gold. This is iconic theatre. This is one of those productions that you will remember and tell your friends I saw McKellen and Stewart together. The memory will keep you company for many years and will be one into which you dip your toes over and over again.
In No Man’s Land Pinter writes – All we have left is the English language. Can it be salvaged?
In the hands of McKellen and Stewart the language is not only salvageded, it is exalted.
No Man’s Land and Waiting for Godot
“No Man’s Land” by Harold Pinter; “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett; directed by Sean Mathias
“No Man’s Land” WITH: Billy Crudup (Foster), Shuler Hensley (Briggs), Ian McKellen (Spooner) and Patrick Stewart (Hirst).
“Waiting for Godot” WITH: Billy Crudup (Lucky), Shuler Hensley (Pozzo), Ian McKellen (Estragon), Patrick Stewart (Vladimir) and Colin Critchley or Aidan Gemme (Boy).
Sets and costumes by Stephen Brimson Lewis; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; music and sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; projections by Zachary Borovay; hair and makeup design by Tom Watson; dialect consultant, Elizabeth Smith; action coordinator, Christian Kelly-Sordelet; production stage manager, William Joseph Barnes; production manager, Aurora Productions; associate producer, Kevin Emrick; general manager, STP/Marshall B. Purdy. Presented by Stuart Thompson, Nomango Productions, Jon B. Platt and Elizabeth Williams/Jack M. Dalgleish. At the Cort Theater, 138 West 48th Street, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com. Through March 2. Running time for “No Man’s Land”: 2 hours; for “Waiting for Godot”: 2 hours 30 minutes.