I stalked the hell out of TDF’s website and scored a pair of tickets to Wednesday’s matinee of Waiting for Godot, which means I got to see BOTH Godot and No Man’s Land (back in November) without waiting in line for hours in the snow for rush tickets! Yay me!
For the uninitiated out there, Godot and No Man’s Land are two of the most important plays in theater history, Written by Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, respectively, in post-WWII Europe, both plays radically re-imagine what a play’s structure, content, and relationship to its audience can be. Pinter’s play came twenty years later and was certainly inspired by Beckett’s work. It’s pretty ridiculous how similar the two plays are and it makes absolute sense why they would be played in rep. It also sounds like an actor’s dream to be in, and a theatergoer’s dream to watch if those actors are any good at what they do. Here’s a nifty little chart show the actors and their characters in each play:
NO MAN’S LAND
WAITING FOR GODOT
|Sir Ian McKellan||Spooner: A lively, talkative, poor man of letters and pal of Hirst… or is he? I really don’t know. He also has cool shoes.||Estragon: A silent, old, sort of decrepit vagabond with stinky feet and a nice (albeit dirty) head of hair. He is also obsessed with shoes.|
|Sir Patrick Stewart||Hirst: A silent, old, sort of decrepit man of letters living in wealth with two creeper bodyguards. Has a nice head of hair. Empties a bar bottle of alcohol pretty quickly.||Vladmir: A lively, talkative vagabond with an existential crisis. Nope, no hair this time.|
|Billy Crudup||Foster: Pretty frickin’ fly and badass.||Lucky: OMG broke my heart I don’t even want to talk about it. Also pretty frickin’ fly and badass.|
|Shuler Hensley||Briggs: Big guy who serves a mean breakfast. Kind of a funny sight in an apron.||Pozzo: Big guy, slave driver (ish) with a southern accent and funny clothes. Eats a mean chicken wing.|
Dude, that’s pretty much all anyone can take away from these plays. What exactly is this one’s relationship with that one? What are they doing there? Is that piece of toast symbolic of something totally transcendent? Is there really any larger message in here besides just watching four guys have weirdly insinuating and hopelessly contradictory conversations?
That’s part of the beauty of these plays though. There’s only as much message as you make of it. You can sit back, laugh at the jokes, enjoy seeing Ian McKellan do a sexy dance, and enjoy the
futility of it all. Or you can be like me and rack your brains out over Christ figures and passage of time and homoerotic innuendos while you’re using the toilet or munching on some sneaked-in snacks during intermission. It’s all good.
Either way, you’re really just subjecting yourself to a glorious script that can be funny, sad, poignant, and frustrating and usually all at the same time. What’s great about these particular productions is that they don’t take themselves too seriously. A few years ago, I saw a London production of No Man’s Land with Michael Gambon and David Bradley in the lead roles. It was SO dry and dark and boring and serious. I felt like I was being sucked into this closing abyss (it didn’t help that I was already jet-lagged) and I didn’t even want to try to make sense of what I saw. I only remember one scene in the whole thing. So I was a bit reluctant going into the McKellan/Stewart production because I thought I’d be in for a long, long night. But it wasn’t. It was lively, fresh, often hilarious. Ian McKellan in particular knew exactly when and where to play up the comedy, the awkwardness between these two individuals and the rest of the cast delivered some really engaging performances. Even if you still don’t really know who the hell these guys are, this production gives you plenty to latch onto so that you can at least enjoy your confusion.
If these guys could pull off comedy in Pinter, they could certainly find the comedy in Beckett’s more overtly comedic and absurd Godot. And of course, they succeed. McKellan and Stewart play their relationship up in much the same way I imagine they act while tweeting and Instagramming about each other. This time, both actor do most of the comedic heavy-lifting, though Stewart has most of the zingers.
However, I felt like the true heart of the production was Billy Crudup’s heart-wrenching, realistic, and purely fascinating portrayal of Lucky, a dog-like slave who remains loyal to his master despite the abuse he suffers. Lucky has only one monologue, but it’s an important one– a mad rant against the world, an entire cosmos of philosophy and theology rattled off in insensible, incapable, yet obviously once competent hands. It’s one of those moments in theater that should hit you with a brute, unstoppable force. Crudup does that, and more. His physicality through his silence is extraordinarily telling. His mere presence on stage is a total game-changer. If there’s any meaning in this play, I think it probably lies in Lucky’s powerless, yet completely sentient hands. At one point in the play, Vladimir asks Pozzo, Lucky’s slave-driver, why Lucky doesn’t just leave. The question reminded me off a crossfire debate I was watching on CNN just the night before in which the pro-Walmart person asked the newscaster: if the employees don’t want to work for Walmart, they can go find a job somewhere else. I’m, of course, projecting my interpretation and societal views onto this scene, but I think power is an especially important theme in both plays and certainly something worth exploring. Would Beckett see in our current cultural landscape aspects of his seemingly post-apocalyptic world? Is the power play of the two men in Pinter’s play symptomatic of a generation in despair? And maybe more importantly, is our dog-like loyalty to those who would misuse us fundamentally good in our human nature, or something we need to repair?
Catch these productions before they close on March 30.