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Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart have known each other for years — they were both actors at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the '60s and '70s, and both achieved broader fame through movies and television. Both were knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for their work onstage and off. And then, of course, they were cast as mortal enemies in the first X-Men film 14 years ago, and have come back to the roles of Magneto and Professor X several times since.
"We became good friends as a result of shooting multimillion-dollar adventure movies," Stewart says.
Such good friends, in fact, that McKellen officiated at Stewart's wedding this past September. Now they're on Broadway in repertory productions of two 20th-century masterpieces: Waiting for Godot and No Man's Land.
Stewart says the big-picture fame is a blessing that helps subsidize the stage work both men love.
"I have often heard actors say, 'I can't afford to go back to the theater,'" he says. "I look at 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."
Godot, Samuel Beckett's triumph of existential anxiety, takes place in a bleak landscape where Vladimir and Estragon, two seedy tramps and longtime friends are waiting to meet the mysterious man of the title. The play is, in turns, very funny and very disturbing. Ian McKellen says audiences find much to recognize in it.
"Once you apply it to your own life, you realize how true it is," he says. "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. They're waiting for the lottery. Waiting for the good job. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Hoping. Expecting."
A 'Particular Aspect of Aging'
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.
"There's nothing more enjoyable to me than doing two plays at the same time," McKellen says. "There's not a possibility you may get bored or lazy or turn your mind off, which can sometimes happen if you're doing eight shows a week."
No Man's Land takes place in the posh setting of Hampstead in North London, where two poets meet — one a literary lion, the other a failure. In Pinter's sometimes cryptic play, the men are in an all-too-recognizable situation; both are aging, and one of them is suffering from dementia.
"Both plays deal with this particular aspect of aging," says Stewart. "In the case of No Man's Land, it's kind of horrific."
Stewart's character, Hirst, can't stay in the present. He can't always keep track of who's who.
"And of course, in his case, this is coupled with what is clearly profound alcoholism, as well," Stewart says.
Getting The Balance Right
Sean Matthias, who directed the repertory, says the hardest part to get right was "the swing from the light to the dark."
"We get an awful lot of laughs," he acknowledges. "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 [the actors] quite heavily, to make sure the balance is right."
Part of getting that balance right is making sure the actors are in sync personally. Before every performance, Stewart and McKellen get together in a dressing room to gossip and talk about their day. Then they go onstage — where anything can happen.
"We have fun with both plays — so much fun, because Ian and myself are alone on stage for huge amounts of time," Stewart says. "And we share things that the audience doesn't always know about, and that's fine."
Stewart says McKellen has a mischievously mercurial streak.
"Ian is a great one for suddenly springing things on you," he says. "He'll do something — a move will be different, or a complete change of attitude in a speech, and it makes for an interesting time. And it passes the time, too, of course!"