Perfect casting for famous old pals act
Apr 20 2009 by Daniel Rosenthal, The Journal
A pair of thespian heavyweights appear at Newcastle Theatre Royal tonight in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. Daniel Rosenthal talks to Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart.
IN 1957, as a 17-year-old drama student at Bristol’s Old Vic Theatre School, Patrick Stewart went to see Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, starring a then unknown actor called Peter O’Toole.
It was an unforgettable experience. “When he came on stage, my sense was that the lights brightened,” says Stewart of O’Toole’s charismatic turn as Vladimir, who, with friend and fellow vagrant Estragon, dominates Beckett’s most celebrated play.
Stewart left that performance in Bristol determined that one day he would play Vladimir and, half a century later, the man known to millions of TV viewers as Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard finally fulfils that ambition, appearing – with Ian McKellen as Estragon – at Theatre Royal, Newcastle, from tonight until Saturday.
This award-winning pair have known each other since the mid-1970s, when for several years they were leading lights in the Royal Shakespeare Company ensemble – although they shared the stage in just one production, Tom Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour in 1977, with Stewart as a Soviet prison doctor interviewing McKellen’s supposedly insane inmate.
Then, between 2000 and 2006, they starred in Hollywood’s hugely successful X-Men trilogy.
In those blockbusters they were cast as sworn enemies, McKellen as the evil Magneto and Stewart as Professor Xavier, benevolent head of an academy for mutant superheroes.
In Waiting for Godot, however, they portray extremely close, if argumentative, pals.
“They need each other to stay alive,” says Stewart of the characters who spend the drama awaiting a rendezvous with the mysterious Godot.
The overlap in Stewart and McKellen’s theatre experience, especially in Shakespeare (both have played Macbeth, Prospero in The Tempest and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale) and high-profile screen appearances (X-Men, Star Trek and, for McKellen, the Lord of the Rings trilogy) has given them an invaluable head-start for their Beckett roles.
Picking up on numerous clues in the script, they and the production’s director, Sean Mathias, are convinced that Vladimir and Estragon were once a professional double-act who performed together for many years.
“We landed enthusiastically on the idea that a good starting point, and maybe finishing point, is to make theirs a theatre relationship,” says McKellen, sitting opposite Stewart during a mid-morning break at the Godot rehearsal rooms in Southwark, south London.
“They say things like ‘Oh my feet are hurting – will you help me to take my boots off ?’, which is the kind of conversation that could happen between people sharing a dressing room.
“Audiences could imagine that Patrick and I have spent our lives being in plays together. We’ve had very similar careers and clearly like the same sorts of plays.
“Those members of the Godot audience who’ve just seen us separately in Shakespeare productions will, I hope, find it fun that these two guys are now in a Beckett play, wearing baggy trousers and bowler hats.”
Many of this week’s sell-out audiences will undoubtedly have seen the pair in the respective RSC roles Sir Ian speaks of.
Sir Ian was last at the venue in the summer of 2007 playing the lead in King Lear, which went on to tour the world. While Stewart came to Tyneside with the RSC in autumn 2006 as Prospero in The Tempest.