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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart interview: Tramping the boards

Published in Scotland on Sunday © Mark Fisher

Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart interview: Tramping the boards

SURPRISINGLY for actors born within two years of each other in the neighbouring counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, the 2000 blockbuster X-Men was only Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart's second professional collaboration. Prior to that, they had shared a brief scene or two in the premiere of Tom Stoppard's Every Good Boy Deserves Favour in 1977, but had otherwise pursued independent careers, albeit with a startlingly similar mix of high-brow and popular.
Where one played Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek, the other played Gandalf in The Lord Of The Rings. Where Stewart's CV includes Prospero, Macbeth and Claudius, McKellen's boasts King Lear, Richard III and Iago. And where Stewart is a sex-mad egotist writing a dire film script, McKellen is a pretentious thesp who treats every banal idea as if it were a profound revelation – that is, according to their brilliant self-parodies in Ricky Gervais's Extras ("The rather appalling thing about that," says McKellen with typical modesty, "is how close to me that parody is.")

With track records like that, it would have been a thrill if either actor had been cast in the UK tour of Waiting For Godot that kicks off this week in Worcestershire and reaches Edinburgh in April. That both are starring in the Samuel Beckett classic is a heady thought indeed. Even the actors themselves think it's a coup. "It's the most thrilling prospect," says Stewart. "Dream-casting barely begins to describe it."

The high-profile line-up doesn't stop with McKellen and Stewart. The production also stars Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup, box-office draws in their own right. "We can't believe our luck," says McKellen, who made sure he saw Stewart's brilliantly chilling Claudio in the RSC's Hamlet as well as catching Callow's panto turn as Captain Hook before rehearsals began.

Rewind to the opening X-Men scene. The telepathic Xavier is rooting round in Magneto's head for information. "Whatever are you looking for?" says McKellen. "I'm looking for hope," says Stewart. A decade later, the dialogue is oddly similar, but their relationship has taken an existential twist. In 2009, when McKellen's Estragon asks "What do we do now, now that we are happy?" Stewart's Vladimir replies: "Wait for Godot."

It was that kind of elliptical remark that prompted the character actor Robert Morley to complain that the success of Waiting For Godot in 1955 was "the end of the theatre as we know it". In a way, he was right. John Osborne's Look Back In Anger, which was staged a year later, was much celebrated at the time, but in retrospect it is Waiting For Godot – the play voted the most significant of the 20th century in a National Theatre poll – that stands as the greatest challenge to convention. For McKellen and Stewart, who both saw the play at a formative age, Waiting For Godot has always been an inspiration and never a threat.

"I caught up with it on its post-London tour at the Opera House in Manchester during a vacation from university," says McKellen, who'll be seen later this year in the remake of The Prisoner. "It all seemed perfectly entertaining to me and I've always thought it was. Perhaps the British establishment were not prepared to allow an Irish writer who wrote in French to be the person who transformed English-speaking theatre. It was a real shake-up from the sort of plays that the West End was harbouring at the time. They all had their sell-by dates, but Beckett seems to be writing about something more than a particular moment in time."

At around the same period, Stewart had moved to Bristol to train at the Old Vic theatre school and it was there he saw a production of Beckett's play starring an unknown actor by the name of Peter O'Toole. "I came out of the theatre reeling with excitement, amazement and puzzlement, knowing that something remarkable had happened," he says. "I promised myself that one day I would seize an opportunity to be in that play. Well, 50 years went by!"

In those 50 years, Stewart worked his way through the acting ranks with a mixture of TV (I, Claudius, an early crack at Claudius, the odd Play for Today) and theatre standards. "I remember seeing his Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice and thinking it was the best I'd ever seen," says McKellen.

It was landing the part of the captain of the starship Enterprise that changed everything for Stewart – which makes it all the more remarkable that he nearly turned it down. "I agonised for five days over whether or not I should take this job because I had to sign a six-year contract and there was a lot of stage work I was planning to do," says the 68-year-old. "But I knew that if I turned it down I would always feel I had been cowardly. I would have considered something that was new, challenging, unknown, very strange and turned away from it. It was on that basis that I accepted it and it proved to be the right decision."

It turned out Captain Picard would open Hollywood doors for Stewart without denying him roles in his beloved theatre. "I do enjoy the diversity, it is true, but at the very core of it is my work in classical theatre and there's still a lot to be done there. I have a list that would keep me going for several years – Lear, Falstaff, Bottom, Shylock, Leontes – and, like Waiting For Godot, there are plenty of 20th-century classics I have not been in."

McKellen's ascent to stardom was faster. He'd been a high-flyer in student productions at Cambridge University and enjoyed three non-stop years of repertory theatre before his first West End role. "He was a star with the National Theatre company," recalls Stewart. "I remember seeing him as Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing and thinking he was dazzling. I was still struggling along with small parts and understudying when Ian was establishing himself as a leading man."

With their careers running in parallel but so rarely interlocking, it wasn't until 1998 that their friendship flourished. McKellen was starring in Ibsen's An Enemy Of The People, a National Theatre production directed by Trevor Nunn. The success in London prompted a tour to Los Angeles, where Stewart had made his home thanks to Star Trek. "I went to see it and Ian invited me back to the flat he was sharing with two other members of the company," says Stewart, who spent 17 years in LA. "We stayed up very late talking and that was when I found what an utterly delightful, fascinating and amusing fellow he was. Very soon after that we were thrown together in the X-Men and we had the most wonderful time on that."

"We're very comfortable in each other's company," agrees McKellen. "When we were doing X-Men we spent the long times waiting for filming reminiscing and laughing a great deal, so all that will be very helpful."

He means that all those months on set together helped develop a rapport that will enrich the onstage relationship of Estragon and Vladimir, infused as it is with echoes of music-hall routines and quick-witted back-chat, just as much as it is with a meditation on the meaning of life. "It would be difficult to undertake something like this with someone you hardly knew," says Stewart. "Ian and I do have a long history together, we do come from the same part of the world, and yes, there is a music hall element to Waiting For Godot. It is also a profoundly mysterious and philosophical piece. It's many things and we shall hope to expose all of them."

• Waiting for Godot, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, April 13-18

© Mark Fisher, 2009

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