RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart, two of the most famous British actors of their generation, thanks to "X-Men," "Lord of the Rings" and "Star Trek," have now landed on Broadway. They're doing two plays in repertory by masters of 20th century drama: Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" and Harold Pinter's "No Man's Land." Jeff Lunden caught up with the two knights, to find out how they've been spending their nights - and matinees - as of late.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart have known each other for years. They were both actors at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960s and '70s, who became international superstars through movies and television. Then they were cast as mutant enemies in the first "X-Men" film 14 years ago and Patrick Stewart says:
PATRICK STEWART: We became good friends as a result of shooting, you know, multi-million dollar adventure movies, you know, comic book movies, in other words, and playing antagonists in those movies.
LUNDEN: They became such good friends that McKellen officiated at Stewart's wedding this past September. This production of "Godot" originated in London four years ago. Stewart says the two men have leveraged their fame to subsidize the stage work they both love.
STEWART: I have often heard actors say I can't afford to go back to the theater. I look on a lot of the work that I do in film and television - which I love - but, at the same time, it underwrites and supports the other work that I want to do.
LUNDEN: "Waiting for Godot," Samuel Beckett's existential masterpiece, takes place in a bleak landscape, where Vladimir and Estragon, two seedy tramps - and longtime friends - are waiting to meet a mysterious man. The play is, in turns, very funny and very disturbing. Ian McKellen says audiences find much to recognize in Samuel Beckett's play.
IAN MCKELLEN: Once you apply it to your own life, you realize how true it is. You've just been waiting for me now, I was late. Kids are already waiting for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Somebody's waiting to meet the man or woman of their life. Their waiting for the lottery. Waiting for the good job. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Hoping. Expecting.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "WAITING FOR GODOT")
STEWART: (as Vladimir) Are you unhappy?
MCKELLEN: (as Estragon) I am happy.
STEWART: (as Vladimir) So am I.
MCKELLEN: (as Estragon) So am I.
STEWART: (as Vladimir) We are happy.
MCKELLEN: (as Estragon) We are happy. What do we do now, now that we're happy?
STEWART: (as Vladimir) We wait for Godot.
MCKELLEN: (as Estragon) Oh, oh, oh.
LUNDEN: On Broadway, McKellen and Stewart have added Harold Pinter's 1975 play, "No Man's Land," to the mix. They do four performances of each play every week. McKellen says switching things up is very stimulating.
MCKELLEN: I'm very grateful 'cause there's nothing more enjoyable to me than doing two plays at the same time. There's not a possibility you might get bored or lazy or turn your mind off, which can sometimes happen if you're doing eight shows a week.
LUNDEN: "No Man's Land" takes place in the posh setting of Hampstead in North London, where two poets meet. One is a literary lion, the other a failure. The two men in Harold Pinter's sometimes cryptic play are in an all-too-recognizable situation. They're both aging and one of them is suffering from dementia. Patrick Stewart...
STEWART: Both plays deal with this particular aspect of aging. In the case of "No Man's Land," it's kind of horrific. What is happening to my character, Hirst, because his confused perception of the world that he's in, of people that surround him, his living in the far past, his confusion about identities and, of course, in his case, this is coupled with what is clearly profound alcoholism as well.
LUNDEN: In this scene, Hirst confuses McKellen's character with another man, whose wife he had an affair with.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "NO MAN'S LAND")
STEWART: (as Hirst) I fell in love with her, once upon a time. Have to confess it to you. Took her out to tea in Dorchester, told her of my yearning. Decided to take the bull by the horns, propose that she betray you. I said that you were a damn fine chap and pointed out I would be taking nothing that belonged to you, simply that portion of herself all women keep in reserve for a rainy day.
LUNDEN: Sean Matthias has directed both plays.
SEAN MATTHIAS: The hardest thing in both the plays to direct, they both have this quality, is the swing from the light to the dark. We get an awful lot of laughs. There's an awful lot of comedy in both and that delights me. But it never delights me if it's at the expense of the soul of the play or the mood of the play or the misery of the play or the melancholy. So, I lean on them all quite heavily to make sure the balance is right.
LUNDEN: Part of getting that balance right is making sure the actors are in sync, personally. Patrick Stewart says before every performance, he and Ian McKellen get together in a dressing room to gossip and talk about their day. Then they go onstage, where anything can happen.
STEWART: We have fun with both plays, so much fun, because Ian and myself are alone on stage for huge amounts of time. And we share things that the audience don't always know about, and that's fine. You know, we're completely at ease. And Ian is a great one for suddenly springing things on you. He'll do something - a move will be different or a completely change of attitude in speech and it makes for an interesting time. And it passes the time, too, of course.
LUNDEN: For audiences who've got an itch to pass the time with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart on a single day, both plays can be seen every Wednesday and Saturday through March 2nd. "Waiting for Godot" and "No Man's Land" officially open tonight. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.