by Harold Pinter


by Samuel Beckett

Starring Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart,
Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley
Directed by Sean Mathias
Cort Theatre
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

The pairing of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with the thespian mastery of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart is simply an occasion for joy—with the proviso that you understand there are things you are not meant to understand.

                        Both plays deal in ambiguities.

                        Of the two, Godot is by far the more profound. One of its best conceits is that, despite exploring themes of hopeless hope, desolation, and the fragility of mortal existence (in both the physical and spiritual senses), it’s meant to be performed by genuine clowns—hobo clowns, to be precise—the funnier, the better. Humor, of course, finds its power in truth, and when you combine brilliant technique with heartfelt delivery, the result is something so sad it must evoke belly-laughs or it would be toohorrible. Waiting for Godot comes by its Theatre of the Absurd label honestly, being such a stunning essay on the eternal absurdities of life.

                        If No Man’s Land has anything like profundity attending it, I’ve been dense about it all these years. Pinter posits a meeting between a wealthy, possibly reclusive poet of great renown and a shabby, down-at-heel poet whose glory days, if indeed he ever had them, are gone. In Act One, it seems they are meeting for the first time. In Act Two, it seems that they have a long and turbulent history. If I were to accord it a purpose beyond simply, mischievously, messing with your head, I’d say it was meant as a little essay on the vagaries of memory, the tricks it can play as, with distance, events get forgotten, marginalized, aggrandized, conflated…whatever is needed to sustain your image of your own narrative.

                        What both these plays require is casts of four men who can fill them out. The characters themselves as delineated on the page, aren’t much more than attitudes and essences, and you will never find one cast remotely like another. It’s almost impossible to sum up what McKellen and Stewart bring to the party, as no simple distillation does them justice, but perhaps the best quick description is to say that in each of these plays, albeit differently, to suit the mood and tone, they are masters of fallen elegance. Their characters are men who once knew better lives, or thought they did, or think they have some notion of what a better life might be if reclaimed, and so they embody the opposing elements of grand gesture cloaked either in shabbiness or dissolution. They also bring forth the utter fearlessness of actors who have been at the game so long that no bit of business, from the subtlety of a raised eyebrow to the pratfall of slapstick, lacks conviction and gusto—if it serves the piece or gets a laugh (and oh the laughs are many and hearty), they happily include it in the arsenal. And such is the wisdom of director Sean Mathias, that he has staged both plays cleanly and allows us to believe, at least, that he has otherwise stayed out of his stars’ way.

                        Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley fill out the quartet, brilliantly playing random elements (both plays have them) who, in Godot, threaten the stability of the desolate landscape; and in No Man’s Land seem to serve as guardians of their master’s fortress of enigma.

                        More than that I’d rather not say. Evenings like the two running in repertory at the Cort are about the joy of discovery, the jolt of being caught unawares, the delight in intuiting something big and complex from a gesture of economical simplicity, which is of course a by-product of having your intelligence assumed, and how exhilarating is that?

                        And when you think of it, what else is important to understand?

                        Not very much; not very much at all…

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