It’s sometimes said that great actors disappear in their roles, but I’m not sure that’s right. Watching Ian McKellen last Wednesday in a doubleheader of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land (at the matinee) and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (in the evening), I had the opposite feeling instead: that the roles were disappearing in him. He had absorbed the two characters, and now presented each, with complete fidelity and a brilliant burnish, through the medium of his voice and body. As Spooner (in No Man’s Land) he was insinuating, seedy, with the posture of a semicolon and the wormy carriage of a lifelong mooch. His hair, beneath a dirty brown cap, was greasily pulled back into a tiny pigtail; his voice strategically honeyed. And then, a few hours later, bearded and bowlered and barely able to walk, he reappeared as Estragon (in Godot): his face scrunched shut like some homeless people you see on the subway, his voice croaky and full of burrs as if it had been used too much in the past and not enough of late.
This was not the trickery of surface caricature but the mystery of deep acting at work. It seemed that if you could slice Estragon in half he would still be Estragon, all the way through. Same with Spooner. And yet how could this be so, when one man was playing both, and they were nothing alike? And also, paradoxically, how could this be so when both were clearly McKellen, with his calculating intelligence, his dry sense of mischief, his banked fires of feeling? As Pinter and Beckett no doubt intended, and as multiplied here by the perfect pairing of the plays in repertory, I found myself pondering not just the question of how many people an actor contains, but how many people we all do.
Certainly No Man’s Land, the less familiar title, addresses this enigma directly. At curtain, we meet Spooner, a shabby poet, and Hirst, a more successful one, in Hirst’s mausoleumlike drawing room. Hirst has picked up Spooner (or vice versa) after a walk in Hampstead Heath, a large London park famous for clandestine trysts. Whether the pick-up is sexual is unclear; though seventyish, they appear (at first) to be single and strangers. But the gay undertones are as quickly quashed as they are sounded. Spooner, though admitting to being a “betwixt-twig peeper,” is now “too old for any kind of expectation.” In fact — if such a phrase can apply in Pinter — we soon hear that each man is married, or was, or wasn’t. And that they have known each other at least since college. Hirst, in a perfectly calibrated performance by Patrick Stewart, jovially relates the ribald tale of how he cuckolded Spooner with his wife for years. (“Her ardour was, in my experience, unparalleled.”) Spooner returns the favor with a description of his affair with the lovely Arabella Hinscott, whom Hirst also loved. (Though she did not allow “full consummation,” she was “content with her particular predilection.”) But by now, Hirst is calling Spooner “Charles Wetherby.” And Spooner seems to be applying for a job.
This is all quite hilarious, going well beyond the old British trope of mistaken identity into the realm of existential terror. The comedy arises from the contrast between that terror, mostly interior to the two men individually, and the tortuous forms of speech they’ve evolved to keep it that way. No cliché is left unturned. (Of his mother, Spooner says, “I was fortunate to escape with my life.”) And while Hirst may seem at first too decrepit to play with words — in Act One Stewart squeezes great comedy out of merely considering saying something — he emerges in Act Two suddenly hale and lucid. This is extreme but not absurd. Who has not felt the shock of other people’s alteration? Or the slow apprehension of one’s own?
Since the action of No Man’s Land consists mostly of drinking, the slipperiness of identity may have a physiological basis. Of course, this being Pinter, there’s external menace as well. Two slimy men who live in Hirst’s house — played by Shuler Hensley and Billy Crudup — are sometimes said to be family, sometimes paid caretakers, but mostly seem like enforcers, procurers, or (in Crudup’s case) a rent boy. (Crudup gives this past-prime peacock a wonderfully moronic little giggle.) Like generations of thugs in Pinter plays, they remind you that a man with a little money or power need not have many other sterling qualities to acquire a hive of anonymous hangers-on. As if to emphasize that, these two are called Briggs and Foster, which sound like references to their function, not their birth. In any case, their names change too.
And then, while you may be out having dinner, all the names change. Spooner and Hirst become Godot’s Estragon and Vladimir, the forlorn tramps condemned to an eternity of frustrated hope. Briggs becomes Pozzo, the fatuous landowner on whose property they trespass, and Foster becomes Lucky, his quasi-equine luggage-toting slave. The handsome sets by Stephen Brimson Lewis make a transition as well; when the curtain rises this time, Hirst’s home has lifted away to reveal, in Beckett’s woeful description of the setting, “A country road. A tree.” All that remains of Pinter’s poshness is the ruined classical frame at the proscenium, calling to mind an ancient theater.
For if No Man’s Land is self-consciously meta-theatrical, Godot doesn’t even bother with the meta. It’s vaudeville. (The first American production — at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, of all places — featured Bert Lahr as Estragon.) Most of the action consists of attempts by one of the two men to amuse the other, or at least to keep him from sinking into a despondence beyond recall. As in No Man’s Land, the two have their familiar “bits,” which can be read theatrically as parts of a duo act (“let’s contradict each other”) or as expressions of a more general human tendency to gravitate toward trusted patterns. Those patterns are further underlined by the correspondences between the two plays, which are emphasized with many smart touches by the director, Sean Mathias.
But there are startling differences, too. For one thing, Godot, though just as funny, is much sadder. Crudup in particular, as Lucky, is rivetingly pathetic; he looks like someone who has been crying for decades, even if he isn’t at this moment. Furthermore, while Pinter seems to trace the horrors of life to individual evil, or at most social hypocrisy, Beckett’s landscape (as his title suggests) is amoral: life just sucks randomly. And, at least on the basis of these very fine productions, one has to conclude that No Man’s Land is becoming a period piece while Godot, twenty years older, is not. Oddly enough, it’s McKellen, superb as he is, who most brings this out. As an openly gay man involved in a famous geezer bromance with Stewart (he officiated at Stewart’s wedding in September), he raises the ante, just by being there, on the plays’ homoeroticism. This enhances the Beckett and reveals flaws in the Pinter. In No Man’s Land, as in Pinter’s Betrayal and The Homecoming, the hint of gayness is a coded threat, suggesting evil and otherness; this only makes sense in a world of rigid homophobia. (Otherwise, as here, it reads as coy.) In Godot, on the other hand, the companionship between two men, with its many marital allusions, is taken for granted. I’m not saying Vladimir and Estragon are gay; I’m saying the play doesn’t care if they are. And that feels modern.
Playwrights write plays, and then audiences over time rewrite them. I heard people leaving the theater say they didn’t “understand” No Man’s Land, but then no one seemed to understand Godot either, when it was new — not even Peter Hall, who directed the English-language premiere. Today, every high-schooler gets a primer on existentialism while reading the Beckett, and can talk about the symbolism of the barren tree or write an essay on Vladimir’s urinary problems. But I find that the better the production, the less this sort of information matters. I loved this double bill because it made me stupid again. After all, we go to the theater, at least in part, to exercise our facility for understanding; if we understood everything already, it wouldn’t be exercise.
No Man’s Land is at the Cort Theatre through March 1; Waiting for Godot, through March 2.