No Man's Land and Waiting for Godot
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No Man's Land: in brief
X-Men collaborators Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart headline Harold Pinter's crepuscular study of death and memory. Shuler Hensley and Billy Crudup round out the cast as two mysterious henchmen/assistants to Stewart. The 1974 play originally starred John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.
No Man's Land: theater review by David Cote
For an elder gent spending his autumn years self-embalming in vodka, whiskey or whatever spirit’s close at hand, Hirst appears remarkably fit. He may stagger a bit en route to the liquor cabinet, but the man’s undeniably hale. And his drinking companion this evening, the shabby and grizzled poetaster Spooner? Not so much. Spooner can put the booze away, but looks quite worn around the edges, an overthumbed book with a crumbling spine. These two met earlier in a Hampstead pub, and now they’re killing the small hours in a literary tipple. Yet no matter how many glasses they glug, it’s we in the audience who lose our legs.
That’s because the language they speak is purely intoxicating, in the sense of both imbuing pleasurable warmth and of making one brood, lose one’s bearings and perhaps see ghosts. Harold Pinter’s 1974 masterpiece No Man’s Land is back on Broadway (last seen here in 1994) in a glowing revival starring Sirs Ian McKellen as Spooner and Patrick Stewart as Hirst. The acting giants are very much cast to type (Stewart: hearty; McKellen: weedy), and they’re a perfect pair.
Like its repertory partner, Waiting for Godot (reviewed below), No Man’s Land is a play in which nothing happens, twice (to borrow Vivian Mercier’s famous quip). Its action is static and elliptical: Spooner and Hirst get plastered at Hirst’s place; they quarrel; Hirst crawls out; two thugs (Shuler Hensely, Billy Crudup) arrive and taunt Spooner; they lock him in the room; and the next day Hirst reenters as if nothing happened; more banter and bickering ensues. The piece follows Pinter’s classic pattern—interloper becomes assimilated in a space where rules keep shifting—but there’s a poetic, Eliotic quality of desolated melancholy that you don’t get so much in The Homecoming or The Caretaker: waste, death, soured love and the greenish fog of a squandered past.
We may cross No Man’s Land in the future, but it’s hard to imagine two men better suited to drink from its bitter and darkly euphoric cup.
THE BOTTOM LINE McKellen and Stewart give new life to Pinter’s meditation on death.
Waiting for Godot: in brief
One of the earliest and most influential examples of theater of the absurd, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot returns to Broadway with X-Men collaborators Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart.
Waiting for Godot: theater review by David Cote
We all know that Samuel Beckett was influenced by silent-film greats such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin when he conceived his cosmic tragicomedy Waiting for Godot. Less talked about is his debt to English music hall. By the curtain-call kick line of tramps Vladimir (Stewart) and Estragon (McKellen), the connection has been made explicit. This is a self-reflexively stagey Godot: The action takes place inside a theater that has been abandoned (or bombed); trapdoors, spotlights and crumbling proscenium arches serve this tale of life’s cruel, chronic meaninglessness.
Filling out the cast is Shuler Hensley as the imperious, whip-cracking Pozzo (played as a Foghorn Leghorn blusterer) and Billy Crudup as the wraithlike servant Lucky. Shuler’s vocal choice is bold and broad, and it doesn’t entirely work. Although at first it’s amusing to hear Pozzo’s bombast delivered in a thick Dixieland drawl, the novelty wears off and leaves you wondering how we are to interpret it. Is this an explicitly post-WWII context, in a theater leveled by air raids, and is Pozzo some manifestation of American power? Crudup’s Lucky is more or less a standard representation, although his burst of logorrheic cogitation (“Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua…”) is accompanied by far too much strenuous acting, when simply “switching on” would be more effective.
None of these questionable choices detracts too much from a Godot that is, finally, quite satisfying. What strikes me is the resiliency of Beckett’s 1953 absurdist classic; it’s able to withstand tiny budgets, difficult spaces and middling acting ability. Of course, here, the thespian-dexterity quotient is high. McKellen’s northern-accented Estragon, he of the smelly shoes, is a beautifully etched study of dismay and decay. Stewart tacks perhaps too far in the opposite direction: toward cheery vigor (you never believe Vladimir has bladder trouble). Performing with a technical virtuosity born of decades on the boards, the two make a marvelous team—even if the game (of life, that is) has already been lost.—Theater review by David Cote
THE BOTTOM LINE Two English stars shine in classic Beckett.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote
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