Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen: interview
More than three decades after appearing on stage together, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are reunited in a highly anticipated production of Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot'. Time Out catches up with the two actors on tour in Brighton prior to the play's opening in London
One comes from Lancashire, the other from Yorkshire. Both are in their late sixties and they appeared together in the ‘X-Men’ movies.
Now, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are playing Estragon and Vladimir in a highly anticipated production of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’. It’s the first time they have performed onstage together since 1977. Sean Matthias directs, with Simon Callow as Pozzo and Ronald Pickup as Lucky.
Beckett’s play was initially received with hostility and bewilderment in London in 1955. Today it is regarded as one of the great plays of the twentieth century. Vladimir and Estragon (or Didi and Gogo, as they call each other) pass the time waiting for Godot to arrive. They argue, swap carrots, sleep, discuss the possibility of hanging themselves and are visited by Pozzo and Lucky.
The pair make a strong contrast. On the dot of noon, Stewart arrives for the interview appearing very dapper in a jacket and button-down shirt. McKellen, on the other hand, had to be woken for this interview by the company manager. He has grown both hair and beard for the part and looks as if he has just got out of bed. But then he would. He just has. And this fact amuses Patrick no end…
Patrick Stewart‘Ian has just woken up but I, on the other hand, have sent 50 emails, paid numerous bills, made phonecalls and written a couple of letters. But I would rather have been sleeping. Ian sleeps for both of us.’
Ian McKellen‘My character sleeps too.’
PS‘He does. He falls asleep all the time.’
IM‘And he’s always being woken up. [Scouring the menu] There’s nothing here but liqueurs and cocktails!’
PS‘I come down now and get my own coffee. This hotel charges £3.50 for a cappuccino and £5 to deliver it to your room. Monstrous! That’s the Yorkshire in me.’
PS‘This is our first day without a matinee or rehearsals.’ IM ‘So it hasn’t been enjoyable in that sense of seeing the country, but I think it’s the job of a lifetime.’
PS‘We were rehearsing right up until two days ago.’
IM‘It’s an extremely funny play. It’s possible to get a laugh on practically every line. We have to be selective because otherwise we would be there all night. But I think we discovered with such delight that the play is funny – and that Beckett was right to call it a tragicomedy – that we had overlooked that he’d called it a tragicomedy. So that’s what we’ve been doing, attending to the depths of emotion that at times burst through. So in Milton Keynes they got the light-comedy version.’
PS‘I don’t think we could be had under the Trade Descriptions Act. We both feel that age is an important factor. I first saw it when I was 17, with a 24-year-old Peter O’Toole in Bristol. I thought it was dazzling. But Pozzo asks Vladimir at one point how old he is. “Sixty? Seventy?” And we agree we’ve been together for 50 years or thereabouts, which puts Pozzo’s assessment in the right area, and that’s how old we are. Looking back, I wonder how it works with young actors.’ On casting
PS‘Ian was onboard long before me.’
IM‘Because I’m really bad at reading plays, I couldn’t work out what the basic characters were. And actually it was a friend of mine who said I should play Gogo; he also said that Patrick would be wonderful as Didi. I really didn’t know. Did you?’
PS‘No. I said, “I don’t care. You cast me and it’ll be fine.” ’
IM‘I think Sean probably felt it wasn’t working in the first week and that the casting ought obviously to have been the other way round. But he’s never said that to me. That would have been an option, wouldn’t it? Because we were very casual about it.’
PS‘It would have been a tragic one, as I had already learnt the damned lines by then. And to start all over again… Ian did have the idea – and I’m not sure whether he was serious or not – of alternating the roles. Oh what a nightmare that would be!’
IM‘It was a stupid idea.’
PS‘And now I could not – with the two of us – conceive of it any other way.’
On the meaning of the play
IM‘There are riffs. And it’s as meaningless and as effective as jazz. What’s the meaning of jazz? It’s not a question that anyone thinks is appropriate to ask. What does a Morecambe and Wise routine mean? It means something to Morecambe and Wise. To us it can be the overall expression of a relationship or it can tickle our funny bone. We have to delve into it. We know that in the past we have been in a professional relationship, which involved performing. It’s potent to me, that idea, because they don’t live together, no more than Morecambe and Wise lived together as real people. And they turn up every day.’
PS‘In the evening.’
IM‘And they seem to do the same act twice. Twice nightly. They come together to have a relationship.’
PS‘Just as we do.’
IM‘It comforts me to think that these people could be inside us. And the set reflects this. The metaphor of double-acts is clearly in the play. And I don’t think we’ve limited the play by presenting it a bit more than usual.’
PS‘I think it’s become a conduit.’
IM‘Conduit! Very good.’
On the reaction of their fans
IM‘After the extreme theatricality of the productions we’ve been in on TV and in film, this must seem like a slice of “Coronation Street” in comparison. If you can swallow what Magneto and Professor X get up to, you can have no problem with Didi and Gogo.’
PS‘I’ve no doubt that some people come to see Gandalf and Jean-Luc Picard.’
IM‘We’ll see what happens in London, but so far we’ve had a very nice mix of the regular theatregoers who are probably nearer our age than the average Trekkie, plus quite young people who may well have been studying “Waiting for Godot” at A-level. It’s at the end that the fans make themselves heard a bit more. There’s some unfamiliar whooping, which Patrick plays to shamelessly.’
PS‘It’s still new to me. I’m not used to being whooped at.’ On touring
PS‘We are largely on tour because of Ian. It was his proposal and his enthusiasm for doing two months on the road.’
IM‘It’s always thrilling arriving on a Monday. And I think, without exception, it’s thrilling to know you are going to leave on Saturday. Seeing the Old Vic on tour as a child in Manchester was crucial to what happened with the rest of my life.’
PS‘I want to really enjoy the places we are going to. I’ve lived 17 years in California and I’ve only been back here five years. So I’m in an ongoing love affair with the English landscape. I missed it so acutely in sunny Southern California. I can’t get enough of it.’
IM‘It was really upsetting that in Malvern I didn’t step out into the hills once. I love walking, but I didn’t have the energy for it.’
PS‘Malvern was taxing. The first couple of weeks I had to be taken home in a bucket.’
IM‘When we were rehearsing, floundering about as you do, we had Simon Callow in the room, whose knowledge on things theatrical is without parallel, and Ronald Pickup who’s been in three Beckett plays, two of them directed by the author. So we felt rather grounded. So it’s not just the geezers tour, but people with some genuine experience of this sort of carry-on.’
On sharing a dressing room
PS‘It seemed natural and it’s proved to be essential.’
IM‘There’s only one decent dressing room on these tours. And who’s going to decide who’s in the number one dressing room? Best to avoid that unseemly discussion. It’s genuinely helpful. We talk about the play, give each other suggestions and ask for advice.’
PS‘For me, the evening begins 35 minutes before the curtain goes up.’
IM‘I suggested to Ron and Simon that they should share. But Simon’s room is covered in the latest publications, periodicals and obscure CDs. Next door, Ron is living in a pigsty of old make-up and cigarette butts and costumes. We seem to be more compatible. You’re a little bit tidier than I am, but I appreciate tidiness even if I’m not tidy myself.’
On preparing to go on
IM‘You haven’t done a single vocal exercise.’
PS‘Ooh, that is so untrue!’
IM‘Well, you wander into the corridor and hum a bit.’
PS‘That is so untrue. I am a very prepared actor when we go on. I should also say that we have a dream of a dresser.’
IM‘We do.’On the end of the play
PS‘I continue to find the last half-dozen pages deeply emotional.’
IM‘You can’t help relating it to your own life. If you find it admirable that people stick together through thick and thin, you’ll leave feeling positive. If you think, “Oh God, they should have separated, they should have found their full potential,” you’ll go out feeling unhappy. To those who say, “I didn’t understand it,” well join the club. Who does understand life?’
‘Waiting for Godot’ opens at the Haymarket Theatre Royal on Thur Apr 30. (A number of day seats for £10 will be released daily, and will be available from the box office from noon. Phone 0845 481 1870.
Author: Jane Edwardes. Photography Rob Greig
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