LONDON – One of the great theatrical bromances of our time is coming to the big screen.
Onstage co-stars and offstage pals Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart have capped a West End run of Harold Pinter’s bruisingly funny “No Man’s Land” with a live broadcast to dozens of movie theaters around the world on this past Thursday. There are repeat screenings over the coming weeks as part of the U.K. National Theatre’s NT Live series.
The two eminent actors – both knighted by Queen Elizabeth II – became friends while filming the superhero “X-Men” movies, and their onstage chemistry has blossomed alongside an exuberant offstage friendship, complete with Instagrammed selfies.
In 2009 they co-starred as the limbo-lost Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot.” In 2013 on Broadway, they paired Beckett’s drama with “No Man’s Land,” performing the two plays in rep.
This year they headed back to Britain with Pinter’s tragicomedy about two writers: one struggling but hopeful, the other successful but trapped. As the play opens, McKellen’s eager Spooner has been invited to the grand home of Stewart’s imperious yet befuddled Hirst for an ocean of whiskey and a titanic battle of wills.
The play was first staged in 1975, when Pinter was in his 40s. But 77-year-old McKellen says that “it seems to me at my age to be very much about how you cope with aging.”
“One of the characters has a sort of dementia, and his new friend is trying to bring himself back into the real world, which is rather a dangerous thing to do with someone who is living in a fantasy,” McKellen said the morning before a recent performance at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre.
In typical Pinter style, “No Man’s Land” is frequently mysterious and often bleak. But the interaction of McKellen’s nervy and garrulous Spooner and Stewart’s alternately jovial and menacing Hirst is also very funny. There’s a bravura comic scene in which the two swap increasingly unlikely reminiscences in a game of nostalgic one-upmanship.
“The play is constantly about the shifting of power,” said Sean Mathias, who directed both “Godot” and “No Man’s Land” – and the two lead actors “have a natural chemistry.”
“They are so different and I think there is a kind of contrast that works between them,” Mathias said.
McKellen says the two men were drawn together by their shared background. They are a similar age – McKellen is 77, Stewart 76 – and both come from modest backgrounds in the north of England. Both worked early in their careers at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and both played iconic roles in sci-fi and fantasy – McKellen as wizard Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings,” Stewart as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
And neither is thinking about retirement, though McKellen says “I’ve never had a wish-list of parts I’ve wanted to play.”
“I always assumed that I would play Romeo one day, and I did; and Hamlet, and I did,” he said.
“There’s nothing that I really want to do. Apart from a musical – but I can’t sing or dance, so I suppose that’s not going to happen.”
Don’t bet against it. McKellen says he plans to nurture his musical side now that “No Man’s Land” has ended its run.
“My next treat to myself is learning to play the piano.”
He would love to reunite with Stewart and Mathias, though he says the classic repertoire is short on strong double-acts for senior actors.
“There are not many plays with two equally good parts for men of our age – very few,” McKellen said. “So someone had better get writing.”
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