Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen may be adversaries in the X-Men films but they are best friends in real life.
The pair met while working at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1970s. McKellen remembers they eyed each other from afar, but adds, “we didn’t become close friends until much later.”
“I probably could have attempted a friendship but I was so intimidated by my friend at that time,” Stewart says playfully. “That’s all gone now.”
The two bring their personal chemistry to a West End remounting of their 2013 Broadway hit, Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land that will be broadcast live to Cineplex cinemas from Wyndham’s Theatre, London.
“People say, ‘Why are you doing No Man’s Land again?’” says McKellen. “We did it in New York and no one has written a play for us since! We’re back with the old material.”
The BFFs play two ageing writers, the alcoholic, upper-class Hirst and the “failed, down-at-heel poet” Spooner. They are strangers who meet at a pub before going back to Hirst’s stately home to continue drinking and, as McKellen says, “affect each other’s lives.” The hilariously tragicomic power struggle contains some of Pinter’s most poetic writing. “It’s like overhearing long conversations in a pub,” says McKellan, “but written in the most exquisite language possible. Very funny.”
Stewart’s love affair with No Man’s Land predates his friendship with his co-star. First performed in 1975, the play starred theatre legends John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson as Stewart watched from the audience of London’s Old Vic Theatre.
“We both saw it, not together because we didn’t know one another then,” he says. “I went on a Monday night and was so dazzled by the performances and also by the script, much of which I could not fully understand. So I bought a ticket for the next night and then I bought a ticket for Thursday as well. I saw it three times and I would have gone on the Saturday night but I couldn’t afford to.”
Reviews for McKellen and Stewart’s take on the play are glowing. “Unmissable,” raved The Telegraph while The Independent called it “the funniest account of the play I have seen without underselling its scariness, mystery or bleak vision of the twilight zone between life and death that is old age.”
“It’s one of the great plays of the last century,” says McKellen.