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A CurtainUp Review
No Man's Land and Waiting for Godot in Repertory
Waiting For Godot
No Man's Land
No Man's Land by Elyse Sommer
The current Sirs, (John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, the original Hirst and Spooner, were also knighted and lauded actors) wrest every bit of sad and comic nuance from the alcoholic Hirst (Stewart) and Spooner (McKellen), the nonstop, self-described "gabbler." Their interchanges are delivered with comedic and yet somehow menacing and enigmatic flair. The pauses alternate with dialogue that imbues daily speech with the cadences of poetry. Despite the danger that seems to lurk over the down-at-the heels Spooner's good fortune in being invited to Hirst's Hampstead home after a chance meeting in a pub, those carefully calibrated verbal exchanges are the only weapons. That holds even when the gangsterish Foster (Billy Crudup) and Briggs (Shuler Helmsley), come on stage making this a half-American production.
Foster and Briggs heighten the mystery of who's who, what's real and surreal, and just where this vodka, whiskey and champagne fueled night and morning after is going — as well as making the No Man's Land of the title as open to interpretation as to the meaning of the anxiously awaited arrival of Godot by McKellen's Estrogen and Stewart's Vladimir.
The morning after scene when Briggs, acting as Hirst's butler, serves Spooner a champagne breakfast is especially funny— though still absurdist funny and not without menace. This is evident when Spooner, apparently sensing a need to get away, tells Briggs he must be off to meet a patron of his poetry — which prompts Briggs to keep him there to perhaps help find a patron for Foster who he insists is also a poet, unlikely as that seems.
Foster and Briggs, like Godot's Lucky and Pozo, certainly make things more interesting and puzzling. Now that Michael Kitchen has endeared himself to the public as the mild-mannered Inspector Foyle of the Foyle's War TV series, I'm sorry I missed his Foster in his Broadway premiere when the original British production came to New York in 1976. Ultimately, however, this is McKellen and Stewart's show
While McKellen has the talkier role and listening to his jabbering and watching him ingratiate himself with his host. Stewart's almost catatonic Hirst (at least in the first act) provides a rare opportunity to see a truly masterful illustration of non verbal, physical acting. He's also riveting to watch when he seems rejuvenated by a night's sleep and reappears nattily dressed and in a talkier mood. He seems to have regained his pep and long-term memory which now has him welcome Spooner as a long lost friend.
The supposed old friends' reminiscences are a hilarious highlight of the livelier second act. Recollections of how Hirst initiated an affair with Spooner's wife while the latter was exercising, and then betraying Spooner's wife with yet another woman, are piquant reminders that Pinter's most accessible and popular play, Betrayal, is currently one of the hottest tickets on Broadway.
Unlike the other in-repertory plays starring another member of Britain's acting royalty, Mark Rylance ( Richard III & Twelfth Night ) No Man's Land has a different look from its partner, though there enough visual hints of the Godot setting present (the curtain, the open ceiling) in the No Man's Land setting. Though Stephen Brimson Lewis's set for Hirst's home is rather grand with its tall windows, it's spare and empty enough to evoke the emptiness of the world these characters inhabit. The focal prop is, of course the well-stocked bar.
Adding immeasurably to the many pleasures of seeing these master thespians perform a play more rarely produced than other Pinter works are the costumes (also by Brimson Lewis) for all four characters. His outfits for Spooner and Hirst are terrifically characterizing and period defining, especially Spooner's worn out walking shoes and Hirst's more elegant pin-striped suit with eye-catching royal blue sox. Crudup and Hensley are even more 70s (the time when the play was written) with their leather jackets, Crudup's flashy print shirt, and Hensley's double-breasted suit for the champagne breakfast.
Of course, any light moments inevitably turn dark in any Pinter play and that's true for that amusingly gossipy and almost realistic return to these elusive men's real or imagined days of friendship and sexual betrayals and their war service and literary careers. So, why not just sit back and watch this terrific pair of Knights run what Hirst calls the "last lap of the race I've long forgotten to run." Don't try to make sense of all their puzzling conversations and how Crudup and Hensley's thuggish underlings will fit into the No Man's Land they all land in.
That way, you'll be doubling your pleasure: the fun of letting the absurdism and clever word play and these fine performances roll over you —, and after the curtain falls trying to figure out not just what it was all about or what Pinter's intentions were, but what it meant to you.
As for my own take on whether to see both plays. . . American audiences don't get to see actors alternate roles and plays of this caliber. Therefore, if time and your pocketbook allows it, go for both. If you have to choose one, Godot comes around more often than No Man's Land, (I've seen Godot about five times, No Man's Land just once, so the latter would be my first choice.
For more about Harold Pinter and links to other plays we've reviewed, see our Playwright Albumps Harold Pinter Page
Waiting For Godot by Simon Saltzman
Inclined as we might be to regard what often appears to be a British invasion of plays and players every season as a necessary intrusion, the fact is that the imports often deservedly walk away with a substantial number of accolades and prestigious awards. We may as well be prepared to admit that our continued appreciation of Brits on stage whether en travestie or in tragedy is not unwarranted.
Curtainup has reviewed the Shakespeare plays and also written about the special pleasures of these in-rep productions ( Reviews . . . Double Your Pleasure. . .) I think seeing both plays on the same day has its own special resonance and I feel lucky to have had a chance to do so (no reflection on the luckless Lucky character in Waiting for Godot
Running the risk of being redundant (and not meaning to intrude on Elyse's review), the best thing about seeing a play by Pinter is not to have to explain it. I make no excuses about being as perplexed by the uneasy accessibility to a Pinter plot, as I am repeatedly fascinated by its calculated elusiveness. This confusion is no more apparent than it is in the tantalizingly vague No Man's Land. In comparison, Waiting for Godot is clarity in the extreme. Yet, what a fine and complimentary pairing of plays it is.
That said, the chill-enhanced rapport between McKellen and Stewart in No Man's Land was for me considerably more exciting to observe than is the absurdist playfulness they deploy in Waiting for Godot. Seeing the Pinter with Beckett plays in repertory is, of course, a fine way to more fully appreciate the demanding stamina and the exemplary technique that is required of actors in such a project, and in this instance, handled with notable aplomb by McKellen and Stewart.
Kudos go to director Sean Mathias for keeping the integrity of both plays. For those who experience them, the settings as designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, are impressive with the one for the Beckett conceptually less abstracted and more site specific than usually done. Unlike the Globe productions, there is no attempt at a one design-fits-all.
Beckett's serio-comical 1955 masterpiece largely defines for many the quasi-respectable genre known as Theater of the Absurd and it doesn't need one more critic voicing his opinion as to what the devil is really going on. Given that I still have the memory of Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin dancing around in my head from the 2009 Broadway production — not to mention that of Christopher Plummer and Jason Robard as the rival poets in the Roundabout Theater's No Man's Land in 1994— all that existential stuff, be it mysterious or metaphysical, can either transcend into something glorious or it can be affectionately accommodating and easily accessed as it is in this Godot.
In contrast to Lewis's vast, coldly impressionistic interior for No Man's Land, his setting for Waiting for Godot is startlingly glorious. Estragon (McKellen) and Vladimir (Stewart) are apparently survivors in a post-apocalyptic world. Their common meeting ground is a partially raked wooden plank roof with gaping holes. It appears to be elevated from what might be a city street. Behind them is a large and looming brick wall with a wooden gate. On each side of the dangerous-to-navigate set is evidence of ancient facades with crumbling terraces. Afar we can see a rocky, inhospitable terrain, and in the foreground that obligatory barren tree.
Let's not ponder any more about where we really are or who Godot really is. Just consider the facts that this play succeeds exactly because it appears to have no plot, no point, no purpose and no discernible progression of activity. Knowing this also may suggest to what lengths McKellen and Stewart go to insure that there is more meaning than meandering to be gleaned from the precisely delivered text (although my companion caught a tweaking of a line in one instance.)
Be assured that whatever misgivings you may harbor regarding any play by Beckett, this is the one that deserves to earn your admiration if not necessarily change your mind. Purists need not worry that the enigmas of the play have been made any clearer here than they ever were, or that the riveting text is appraised in a new light.
There are comical elements in this rather sedate staging that will keep the devoted relatively happy. Given the restrictions and demands imposed upon its interpreters by the guardians of Beckett-land, the staging by Mathias insures that McKellen and Stewart do what is expected with the grace and style, timing and delivery of seasoned vaudevillians.
If the plot is famed for its reductionism, the contrivances that these two find themselves addressing seem to be leftovers from their act on the Orpheum Circuit. A formidable work, Waiting for Godot requires as much a fearless approach as it does a reverential one. And this is definitely a most reverential one. Here are two pathetic, dusty, shabbily-dressed men with their bruised faces under bowler hats and disintegrating shoes on their painful dirty feet, as they bicker and bait each other. It is amusing to see these two artful interpreters searching for clues that might make them seem as if they had a direction or motivation (ill-advised adornments in any absurdist work.)
What is most striking about the interplay between them is how methodically these two impatient tramps breech the territory between the play's humor and its utter poignancy. The long and rather too slowly paced Act I leads us into the more carefree discourse that goes nowhere in particular in Act II, as these two eternally bonded men wait for the elusive Mr. Godot.
Except for the intrusion into their bleak existence by a despotic master and his obedient slave, they may or may not be aware at any point that their mutually entwined karmas are leading them all to the same place. McKellen and Stewart have definitely figured out how to jiggle the balance of power like a long-standing partnership. They appeared in No Man's Land earlier this year at the Berkeley Rep. and also in Waiting for Godot in London in 2009. McKellen, who has won every conceivable award for his acting here and abroad, has finely tuned Estragon's despairing, soulful sense of resolve with a touch of paranoia.
Stewart's career is no less distinguished on stage, TV, and film and is quite masterful keeping Vladimir's racked-with-discomfort body in consort with his deftly spoken words and his malfunctioning kidneys. Waiting and waiting and waiting, both Go Go and Di Di (as they are familiarly known to each other) are characters we are concerned about and really care about, a situation all too rare in much contemporary dramatic literature. Ultimately the contentiousness between these two becomes endearing even as their affection for each inevitably becomes incredibly sad.
I wish I could say that the play gets a punch with the intrusion of the whip-snapping master Pozzo, as portrayed by Shuler Hensley. At the performance I saw, Hensely was still getting a handle on Pozzo, and seemed less a terrorizing autocrat than a portentous fool with a Southern accent. A gaunt-looking Billy Crudup chokes wheezes and shakes and makes a convincing case with his pathetic gobbledygook as the abused, humiliated and luckless Lucky.
With its accompanying and welcomed comical digressions, Waiting for Godot, regardless of the various perspectives, will undoubtedly keep coming back to us. And we will continue to be intrigued with this play that will always also keep us waiting and waiting, even for that illusive definitive production still to come.
Waiting for Godot was first presented as En Attendant Godot at the Theatre de Babylone, Paris, France during the season of 1952-53. It had its Broadway premiere at the John Golden Theater on April 19, 1956 and played through June 9 for a total of 59 performances.