Trying to figure out a Pinter play is like pounding nails in your skull. Trying to figure out a Beckett play is like using a drill. But holding forth in a death-defying repertory bill of Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” and Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” master thespians Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart make it all seem crystal-clear under the incisive direction of Sean Mathias. Auds are free to make what they will of the mysterious characters who figure in these two ambiguous masterpieces of existential angst, but these actors know exactly who these men are — old friends.
The title alone of “No Man’s Land” is enough to give you chills, referring as it does to some sepulchral place or state of existence “which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever icy and silent.” The hint of that blasted heath in “Waiting for Godot” is uncanny. Brrrrr!
This limbo land is where Spooner, the seedy and possibly starving poet played by McKellen, finds himself when Hirst, the famous and far more successful literary figure played by Stewart, picks him up on Hampstead Heath and invites him to his elegant home for a nightcap. Awed by his posh surroundings, Spooner feels compelled to sing for his supper (for access to a well-stocked liquor cabinet, actually) by showing his obsequious regard for his host — perchance to discover a way to mooch off him.
“You are kindness itself, now and in England and in Hampstead and for all eternity,” gushes this down-and-out guest. Getting little reaction from the monosyllabic Hirst, who has drunk himself stiff, Spooner is emboldened to make himself at home by topping off his own glass and delivering a freestyle monologue about his life, his career, and his thoughts on everything from the cruising scene on Hampstead Heath to the “repellent lick-spittling herd of literati” who refuse to let this threadbare poet into their tent.
It’s a joy to watch McKellen circumspectly guide Spooner to the proper state of inebriation at which he can feel comfortable in the house of a stranger he may (or may not) have known in the past. So comfy that he declares them to be literary comrades in arms. (“We share something.”) So comfy that he takes the liberty of challenging his august host on a narrative point. (“It is my duty to tell you you have failed to convince.”)
Fun fact: John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson chose to play against type in the benchmark 1975 production of “No Man’s Land,” with the patrician Sir John taking on the shambolic Spooner and the salty, earthy Sir Ralph tackling the austere Hirst — and winning the Tony for best actor that year.
In this production, Stewart and McKellen play the roles they seem born to play. Stewart uses his noble profile and plummy voice to lend gravitas to Hirst, who springs to life in the second act to engage McKellen’s puckishly charming Spooner in a duel of wits. Hirst leads off with scandalous anecdotes about the wild youth they supposedly shared. Spooner parries with defensive cunning, topping Hirst’s narrative whenever he can, but never challenging the assertion of their past friendship.
Funny as it plays, this exchange can be read in less comic ways: as the fantasy of an old man’s wandering mind. Or the sadly transitory bonding between two strangers. Or the painful resurgence of unhappy memories. This is a Pinter play, so every line, even — or especially — the ones that remain unspoken, are open to interpretation.
McKellen and Stewart raise the intriguing possibility that Spooner and Hirst might, indeed, have been friends at one time. Or if they never were, they are close to becoming friends by the end of the play. Spooner certainly responds like a pal by coming to Hirst’s defense when his two live-in attendants — a sinister “secretary” played with chilling menace by Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley’s brute of a bodyguard — appear to be bullying him. If life for sad old men means living in limbo, better to live it with a kind friend.
In “Waiting for Godot,” the friendship between Vladimir (Stewart) and Estragon (McKellen) is the only thing that’s keeping Western civilization from sinking back into the primordial mud. That’s no loose metaphor, either, because scenic designer Stephen Brimson Lewis has set Beckett’s barren wasteland amid the crumbling ruins of an advanced culture. The boulder that Estragon sits on to remove his boots is no ordinary rock, but the capital of a broken Corinthian column — which is a bit like coming across a half-buried Statue of Liberty in a futuristic sci-fi movie.
Again under the classically oriented direction of Mathias, the two thespians play the parts they were meant to play. Stewart’s rather elegant Vladimir is the serious clown, the straight man who keeps track of things. Things like where they are and what they’re doing. To his logical mind, they are where they are supposed to be and what they’re doing is waiting for Godot. Whenever the absurdity of this aimless existence gets to him (“It’s too much for one man!”), he reasons his way back to optimism. “On the other hand, what’s the good of losing heart now, that’s what I say. We should have thought of it a million years ago.”
If Stewart’s sensible Vladimir is the rational adult in this existential vaudeville act, McKellen’s endearingly goofy Estragon is the irrational child who obeys his natural instincts and acts spontaneously. He’s Jerry Lewis, Bud Abbott, and Tommy Smothers. He’s Kramer. It’s a wonderfully impish performance of the eternally innocent child, sweetly guileless in a hostile universe where the weak are routinely victimized by the strong. As living proof of that, Beckett brings on the sadistic Pozzo, played with frightening intensity by Hensley, and his monstrous treatment of his helpless slave, Lucky (poor Crudup).
The only thing that keeps Vladimir and Estragon from slipping into the same state of moral anarchy is their mutually supportive (and mutually dependent) friendship. Like the poets in “No Man’s Land,” these cosmic clowns may be two sides of the same coin of humanity, which is what people generally want in a friend, anyway — the other side of themselves.
That’s certainly the way that McKellen and Stewart play them here, as partners in the comedy routine we call life. They go through the rituals of existence by drawing on ancient comedy routines from pantomime, the music hall, and of course, the circus. (Their hat-passing routine is terrific.) And although these friends sometimes contemplate adding suicide to their repertoire, they really survive from one day to the next because they make each other laugh. “I tried laughing alone,” Hirst says in “No Man’s Land.” And how was that? “Pathetic.”