Patrick Stewart has been everywhere for the past year or so, especially online, via Twitter, in large part to promote No Man’s Land and Waiting for Godot, the two shows that he, Ian McKellen, Shuler Hensley and Billy Crudup have been performing in repertory at Broadway’s Cort Theatre since November, 2013.
However, there’s still time to see No Man’s Land and/or Waiting for Godot, the former written by Harold Pinter and the latter by Samuel Beckett, and both directed by Sean Mathias. And it’s for precisely that reason – that a full three weeks remain before Stewart and company take their final bows and he wants people, including Star Trek: The Next Generation fans, to check out the shows before it’s too late – that Stewart granted StarTrek.com an extensive interview. The iconic actor spoke in detail about Star Trek and Captain Jean-Luc Picard during an interview we did with him a couple of years ago, so, instead, this half-hour conversation – for which Stewart was energetic and excited and sounded genuinely pleased to do -- focuses on No Man’s Land and Waiting for Godot, touching as well on Days of Future Past, Match and Hunting Elephants, his Twitter “bromance” with McKellen and also his all-around good fortune.
No Man’s Land casts Stewart as Hirst, an elderly, wealthy and hard-drinking poet who invites into his home Spooner (McKellen), himself an aged alcoholic who purports to know Hirst. The two men talk, swapping stories, jokes and barbs, but their evening – or is it morning already? – veers in unexpected directions with the arrival of Hirst’s secretary, Foster (Crudup), and manservant, Briggs (Hensley), who may be lovers and who definitely exude menace toward Spooner. Waiting for Godot, of course, is the far more familiar show, particularly to Broadway audiences. Stewart and McKellen star as Vladimir and Estragon, respectively, two men who wait (and wait and wait) for Godot and talk (and talk and talk) while doing so. In the second production, Hensley and Crudup play, respectively, the tyrant Pozzo and his slave, Lucky.
Below is part one of our two-part conversation.
You and Ian McKellen worked long and hard to make these two shows a reality. Take us through the genesis of the collaboration and why you settled on No Man’s Land and Waiting for Godot, both of which are four-man shows.
STEWART: No Man’s Land was a show I saw in its first production, 1975, in the West End of London with Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson. In fact, I saw it three times in one week because I’d never seen or heard such a remarkable play. It was a play of such glorious poetry and great comedy, with a mystery at the heart of it that was quite difficult to resolve. Also, it had four amazing performances by the four actors who starred in the show. I determined that one day I would be in this play. One day. Well, it took 35 years to come around. Initially, I’d always imagined I’d play the part of Spooner, because that’s the showier role. But when I got to know Ian McKellen really well when we were doing Godot in the U.K. four years ago, it increasingly became clear to me that that role was written for him.
But it took some persuading on your part to convince him to commit to No Man’s Land, right?
STEWART: His main cause for caution was that he could not get Sir John Gielgud out of his head. He said, “If I do it, all I will be doing will be an impersonation of Sir John.” I mean, that was such a distinctive voice and manner of speaking. Mind you, they both had that. I’ve got echoes of Sir Ralph ringing in my head. And there is one place in Act One where I deliberately imitate what I remember him doing because it was so effective. But, we had a reading of the play and Ian quickly realized what a brilliant role it was and how funny it was, and so he came on board. My respect for this play grows and grows and grows with every performance that we do, as the four of us dig deeper and deeper into this mystery that is at the heart of the play and as we try to work hard to make the mystery and the people involved in it as clear and lucid to the audience as possible. In both of these productions, we don’t believe in abstractions. We don’t believe in mystery for the sake of mystery. We’ve tried, on the other hand, to make everything as clear and understandable as possible with both shows, because there are puzzles at the heart of both these plays. And I get a great thrill out of playing Hirst every night.
You must have a very different relationship with Waiting for Godot because, as you noted, you and Sir Ian performed that in the U.K. several years ago…
STEWART: Yes. We did Waiting for Godot for 24 weeks, eight times a week. We were not in repertory then. We toured it all around the country, from Great Malvern to Norfolk to Edinburgh to Milton Keynes, and everywhere we played, we played to sold-out houses. Then we came into London for 16 weeks. So that was a very, very long haul for one difficult play. When it was over, I was very happy to say goodbye to it. Ian, on the other hand, didn’t want to leave it at all, and they recast my role. Roger Rees took over from me and they went on a world tour with it. When we – Ian, Sean Mathias and myself – sat down about two years ago now to talk about No Man’s Land, Ian brought up his interest in bringing Waiting for Godot to New York. Some years had passed since the successful production with Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin had happened. And it was during that conversation, talking about both of the plays and what we could do with them, with Ian’s passion to resurrect Godot and my passion for No Man’s Land, that someone said, “Well, look, there are four male characters in both plays. What’s to stop us from doing both of them? Sean directs both of them. Stephen Brimson Lewis designs both of them. And we do them in repertory…"
Now, it seemed to us immediately to be an audacious idea because repertory has no place on Broadway. Broadway doesn’t have a National Theatre or a Royal Shakespeare Company or a Barbican where you’re accustomed to seeing different plays performed on different nights. People are very used to seeing to a company of Brits come over and perform plays, but we had already decided that we wanted to do it with two American actors. Ian and I were very excited at the thought of finding two strong and brilliant American actors, which we did find in Billy and Shuler, to play the other four roles. It all simply fell into place. It looked like a no-brainer to us. We were a little intimated by the possible costs of doing two plays on Broadway and a little uneasy about, “What if one of them took off and the other didn’t?” We had a long conversation about this.
And what happened?
STEWART: What is ironic looking back on that was that we all thought that if one of the plays was not going to do too well it would be Waiting for Godot. A), because it had been seen on Broadway four years earlier, very successfully. And B), it’s always been looked on, we thought, as a rather difficult play to get hold of, whereas Harold Pinter, play not known well on Broadway, hadn’t been done there for 17 years, since Christopher Plummer and Jason Robards did it. It’s exciting, different, a bit of a thriller, and we thought that’s the play that will take off. Well, actually, it’s been the exact opposite. We’d been very naïve. As the years have gone by, Waiting for Godot has become the popular smash hit. The play that emptied theaters 50 or 60 years ago is now the play that everybody wants to see. And, of course, they know the title. Waiting for Godot is one of those iconic titles. Indeed, high school students are studying it in their English classes or their dramas. The play that has not done quite as well is the Pinter, because if people are choosing one play – and I understand why they might choose one rather than both of them – they go for the play they’ve heard of, that they know something about.
So the pattern, roughly, has been that we’re selling two Godot seats for every one seat of No Man’s Land. Now, that doesn’t mean to say we’ve done badly. On the contrary. The difficult days are always Wednesday and Thursday. For some reason, Tuesdays are brilliant and they always have been, and then Wednesdays and Thursdays get a little difficult. But we have never, ever fallen below a 50 percent house, and sometimes we’ve been well above that with both plays. Now, and this is why I’m so grateful to talk to you, we are on the threshold of our final countdown to the end of the run. We’ve extended twice, the second time until the 30th of March and there won’t be any more extensions because Ian and I have serious commitments to, among other things, a month of promoting and opening X-Men: Days of Future Past during April and early May.
Since we are nearing the end of the run we have changed the scheduling for the last two weeks. We have taken out two No Man’s Land (performances) and put in two more Godots. It seemed to us to make sense. We didn’t want to shut down No Man’s Land altogether because that would seem, we thought, to be admitting some kind of defeat, and there’s been no defeat at all about this project. We are perceived in New York as a smash-hit success, critically, certainly, and in terms of audiences that have come. But there are more people wanting to see Godot than No Man’s Land, so, for the last two weeks, as I say, we’re going to do six Godots and two No Man’s Lands.
We’re coming off now and we’ll have had a 22-week run, which, for plays on Broadway, is more than respectable, particularly plays that are agreed to be somewhat challenging. To remain at the Cort Theatre for 22 weeks, we feel, is an extraordinary achievement, but what we want to do is try and go out with a bang. We don’t want people to wake up on the morning of the 31st of March and say, “I think I’ll have a look at what these guys are up to,” and find that we’ve already left. So, the word we’re putting out now is not as it has been for weeks and weeks that, “Hey, we’re here!” It’s now, “Hey, we’re going!”
To help promote the shows, you and Sir Ian have taken your bromance from Brooklyn to Wall Street and Times Square with Elmo and to Soho with the two of you sitting amongst garbage. How have you and Sir Ian enjoyed your deep dive into the Twitter universe, and most people don't realize it's your wife, Sunny, who's the mastermind of this whole thing, right?
STEWART: They don’t know, and she was very, very happy to remain in the background of that. Both Ian and I, Ian for some time longer than me, have been active on Twitter. What happened was that round about the time we started rehearsals for No Man’s Land, Sunny and I were planning to go out to a favorite restaurant, a Mexican restaurant out here in Brooklyn. But before we left, Sunny said, “You know, I think there is an opportunity here for the two of you, with the huge followings you have on Twitter, to do something unconventional, not just say, ‘Hey guys, we’re doing these plays,’ but to do something that will catch people’s attention, entertain them, amuse them and let them know that perhaps these plays you’re doing are entertaining and amusing as well.”
My wife Sunny is very familiar and very skilled with the workings of social networking sites. She’s been doing it for much, much longer than me. We thought very carefully about the photographs, how they would be set up, how they were presented, the idea of the one linking prop in the photographs, and that’s the two iconic bowler hats that the tramps wear in Waiting for Godot. That did mean that Waiting for Godot got a little bit more, or rather a lot more promotion, than No Man’s Land did, but our very high-powered publicity team and promotional team that have been working with us on these shows, were so excited by what they’ve seen of this Twitter campaign, Gogo and Didi Do NYC. They believe that it is absolutely unique. It’s never been used in this way before to promote a Broadway show. They are all now waiting what is the next show that will come into Broadway that will try to do something similar.