Stewart and McKellen arrived at Harold Pinter's No Man's Land from different directions.
"I was dazzled by it," Stewart said. "I saw the original production on a Monday night, and I went back twice more that week even though I could hardly afford it."
That 1975 London evening, Stewart said, "delighted, amused and fascinated" him, including the "marvelous performances" of Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson. "And I do recall at some point leaving the theatre and saying to myself, 'One day; one day I want to do this play.'"
Through the years, "the love for the play and the passion to do it never left me," said Stewart, 73, on the phone from London.
McKellen, however — on the phone from New Zealand, where he is finishing up work on the second Hobbit film — said that although he had always enjoyed No Man's Land onstage, including the original, "it never really appealed to me as an actor." It was, the 74-year-old actor said, partly because of the long-term effect on him of that first viewing. "I can, in learning [the role of] Spooner now, remember intonations or imagined intonations, ways of speaking the text in Gielgud's voice, and I want to play the part in my own way. Those were the sorts of things that were bothering me." So, he said, "when the subject was brought up, I was a bit indifferent. I wouldn't say negative, but I thought perhaps there were other things I would rather to do."
Nonetheless, Stewart and McKellen have both made it to classic Pinterland. The two renowned actors are onstage this month at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California, and are due on Broadway in October at the Cort Theatre. In Berkeley, Aug. 3-31, No Man's Land will be on its own; in New York, it will be paired in repertory with Waiting for Godot, a Stewart-McKellen smash hit in London in 2009. The United States cast for both plays includes two American Tony winners, Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley; Sean Mathias, London's Godot director, helms both plays.
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Stewart's theatre credits include a long relationship with the Royal Shakespeare Company; on Broadway, he has starred as Prospero in The Tempest, in Arthur Miller's The Ride Down Mount Morgan and as Macbeth (he was a 2008 Tony nominee). In London, he has won three Olivier Awards.
He achieved prominence as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and Prof. Charles Xavier in the "X-Men" movies, in which McKellen, a 1981 Tony winner for Amadeus, portrays Xavier's nemesis, Magneto. McKellen has won four Olivier Awards and has two Oscar nominations ("Gods and Monsters," "The Fellowship of the Ring"). He is also movie-famous as Gandalf in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and the "Hobbit" films.
So how did these "X-Men" combatants wind up in this Pinter play? The answer, Stewart said, involves at least in part that 2009 collaboration on Samuel Beckett's Godot. "During the 22 weeks we were doing Godot in London and on tour, Ian and I shared a dressing room," Stewart said, and "I would every few weeks bring up No Man's Land, because I had got it into my head that he would be the perfect actor to play Spooner, the John Gielgud role. I don't know whether it was I wore him down, or he finally opened his ears to me, but it led to a private reading of the play in London. That won him over."
McKellen's reasons for a change of heart? "I enjoy working with Patrick Stewart, and I enjoy working with Sean Mathias," who had at times suggested the No Man's Land idea, he said. And "it seemed just too good a chance to miss."
"When it was put to me finally," he said, "it just seemed ridiculous not to do this." In fact, he said, "I've fallen more and more in love with this play. I'm a huge fan of it now." It's "very moving," he adds. "I hadn't expected that. And it's very funny." At that private read-through, he adds, "Patrick and I couldn't stop laughing at a couple of points in the play, when the dialogue gets absolutely hilarious."
No Man's Land, as are many Pinter plays, is somewhat baffling. We learn that Hirst, Stewart's character, has invited Spooner one night to his home in Hampstead, London, for a drink, presumably after the pub where they met has closed. That's all we seem to know for sure.
"The language is brilliant," Stewart said. "It's as good as anything written in English drama in the 20th century. The characterizations are so vivid. Yet there is at the heart of this play a powerful mystery. Do these people have a history or have they just met? How reliable are the things they say to one another? Exactly where does the truth lie? And how much is accurate memory and how much false memory?"
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"The mystery deepens and we begin to question everything we have thought was accurate," Stewart said. We learn "that Hirst is a famous man of letters, a poet, an essayist, who has had a very distinguished career. But we're told these things by other people. And because this is a play by Harold Pinter, we're not sure they're the truth."
Spooner, McKellen said, is poet and a "loner; he has a huge ego, and probably some talent as a poet." The character also "said he believes in the present. That's the only thing that is certain. The past and the future are dangerous places to venture perhaps. I'll be looking for the present in the character all the way through. And I'm sure it's there because Pinter himself was an actor, like many great playwrights, and there are great acting possibilities." (Pinter himself portrayed Hirst in London in 1992.)
Starting Oct. 26, when Stewart, McKellen, Crudup, Hensley and Mathias move to Broadway and take on Godot, Stewart will be Vladimir and McKellen will be Estragon. (Hensley will be Pozzo and Crudup will be Lucky.)
McKellen said he is "selfishly delighted that we're doing two plays in repertory, because it's what I'm used to at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, where repertory is the order of the day. I was brought up on that system of doing a number of plays at the same time. It makes it much easier to play them and keep the plays fresh for the audience."
The pairing of the two plays is appropriate, Stewart said. "I have read that Pinter said something to the effect that he could not have become the playwright he was had it not been for the work of Samuel Beckett."
Also, Stewart said, each play has four male characters. "And in both plays there are more questions than answers."