Following their superbly received performances on the opening night of Harold Pinter’s classic power play No Man’s Land at Wyndham’s Theatre last night, the legendary theatrical duo Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart had much to celebrate.
We spoke to the acclaimed actors after the show about how they’d found working with one another, how the tour of the show had been received, and why they’d chosen to revisit the text in the heart of London’s West End.
Congratulations on tonight’s show! So finally you’ve made it to London, after Sheffield, Newcastle, Brighton and Cardiff. How has the tour been?
Sir Ian: When we toured Waiting For Godot seven years ago, we sold every ticket, and we’ve done it again this time! In fact, we broke the box office records in every single theatre, including our advance here. So, we’re feeling pretty high – I must say on Harold Pinter’s behalf. I think it’s an awful lot to do with Harold Pinter.
You can see how well you two work together, and that must be testament to your friendship. Have you enjoyed being back together? You must know each other so well now?
Sir Patrick: We’re not pranksters, Ian and I, but we do have a lot of fun, I promise you!
Sir Ian: Being friends is lovely because you’re going into work, as many people do, in the office or the factory, and there are friends there. We’re old friends, and the fun is getting on stage and together telling the story and being in the play. The basis for all this is friendship, you’re quite right, and, yes, I think it probably does make the possibility of performances more alive. People are very alert to one another.
Sir Patrick: One of the most important things is that you feel safe. That is not to give a blandness to what you do, but to allow you then, on the basis of that safety, to take risks, to make possibly dangerous decisions. We, from the first word of the evening – the four of us, as Damien [Molony] and Owen [Teale] are also part of this approach – we are doing it every night for the first time, so we don’t quite know what direction the evening might go. It’s free, it’s loose, while at the same time being incredibly respectful to the brilliant play.
You were both on Broadway with this play, and have been completing a UK tour. Have you noticed a difference in American and British audiences in their responses?
Sir Ian: The sort of people who go to see Harold Pinter in New York, London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Sydney, Wellington New Zealand-
Sir Patrick: Newcastle!
Sir Ian: Newcastle! They’re all the same sort of people: they love the theatre, they’ve probably seen quite a lot of it, they want to see more of it, so they arrive with high expectations – so to extrapolate from that experience and say “this is what America is like” would be misleading. But of course, there are certain references in the play that are better appreciated here, like “Do you often hang about Hampstead Heath?” Rather lost on the Broadway audiences – and they’re not very good at their cricket references! But the nature of the play, of mental distress, and ageing, and danger, and all that’s in the play, of course that’s universal.
What inspired you both to return to this play in particular?
Sir Patrick: We promised ourselves very early on in the Broadway run that we would, whatever it took, perform this play in London. We didn’t know how, or where, or with whom, but we both felt very strongly that after the marvellous American experience, we had to bring it home, because it’s not just a British play, it’s a London play too, and under these circumstances – with Owen, and Damien, and this perfect theatre, where the original production was performed – it’s more than we could have fantasised about, so we’re very happy.
Would you both be up for starring in a play together again?
Sir Ian: I’m not sure that play’s yet been written! There are very, very few plays with leading parts for two men. Men and women, [there are] dozens of them, but [not] two men. We’ve done one of them – Waiting For Godot – already, and we’ve now done this. I’ve just done The Dresser with another nameless actor, which is another play with two good parts for people of our age! If people want to get writing, a play or film-
Sir Patrick: They’d better get on with it! Because time is passing, the clock is ticking!
Later on, we caught up with Being Human and Suspects star Damien Molony, who plays Foster in the production.
Congratulations on a fantastic show! How have you found working with the rest of the company of No Man’s Land?
Damien: Thank you! It’s been extremely inspiring, and hugely creative, first of all in four weeks of rehearsal, and then a five week tour. Not to sound too cliché, but I’ve learned a huge amount, and I’ve been amazed by the enthusiasm shown by Patrick, Ian and Sean, and their desire to create and discover the play in a new way.
Obviously the play was done in New York two years ago, but it wasn’t as if myself and Owen just slotted into previous roles, it was very much “let’s rediscover the play in a whole new way”, and that for us was hugely rewarding. And I get to work with three fantastic actors, and an amazing visionary director – it’s been the most fun, and hasn’t felt like work for a moment.
What are the particular challenges of approaching a Harold Pinter play?
You want to honour him. The language is so evocative, beautiful and important, and every word has is as important as every pause, so it’s about filling the pauses with menace or suspicion.
One of the hugely enjoyable things about doing this play is that there’s a new energy every single night – all four of us go on stage, not necessarily knowing what’s going to happen. It’s thrilling because you don’t know what Ian, Patrick or Owen are going to do next; every one of us is bouncing off each other. Sometimes you forget that the audience are there, and it feels like it’s something between the four of us.
So do you feel like the play has evolved over the course of the tour?
Absolutely, in a very good way, in the same way that a play running in the West End for six months would evolve. But what’s been so fantastic is that we’ve had Sean [Mathias, the Director] with us for three or four days on tour, and we’ve constantly been tweaking things, so that keeps the play fresh and keeps it exciting for us, and a dream job to be a part of.
What do you think London audiences will enjoy most about No Man’s Land?
There’s lots of things; for me watching it in rehearsals, there’s an immense sadness about these two old men getting drunk together in a room, with no real direction or no real desire to achieve anything. Certainly in Patrick’s case, he’s broken – he is in no man’s land.
On top of that, there’s huge humour – there’s almost sketch comedy within the play in places – big laughs, and there’s also real menace and fear, there’s a real sense of “I don’t know what’s going to happen.” There are power struggles, and that balance is changing all the time; sometimes Spooner’s in control, sometimes Hirst, sometimes Foster and sometimes Brigg’s in control. I think every member of the audience is going to take something different from the piece – there’s not just one version of the play.
Finally, has there been a standout moment from the past few months for you?
Watching Owen, Ian and Patrick work has been thrilling for me. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m actually a character in the play, and not just a member of the audience watching these amazing actors give amazing performances.
There have been stories in the rehearsal room, anecdotes that will come up, that I’ll remember for the rest of my life, and have sometimes had us in stitches, and sometimes had us in tears. It’s been incredible.
No Man’s Land plays at Wyndham’s Theatre until 17 December.
"It’s not just a British play, it’s a London play too, and under these circumstances – with Owen, and Damien, and this perfect theatre, where the original production was performed – it’s more than we could have fantasised about."