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.
But back to the old friends in hand. McKellen continues: “All the evidence in the script is that Vladimir and Estragon are old friends, both pushing 70.”
McKellen will be 70 in May, and Stewart turns 69 this summer, which means that: “Patrick and I are the ideal age to be playing these parts.
“We’re still active, but, like Vladimir and Estragon, we know about aches and pains!”
Stewart adds: “Ian and I are both Northerners, separated only by the Pennines, and I think there’s another element there that gives us a shared understanding for the play.”
Since Godot’s British premiere in 1955, which led Harold Hobson, a drama critic of the Sunday Times, to call it “the most unforgettable and important” night of his theatergoing life, the play has been staged in more than 100 countries.
Literary critics and academics around the world have published hundreds of interpretations of what the characters and their predicament signify, labelling Godot as both optimistic and pessimistic, religious and atheist.
This prompts Stewart’s only concern about Mathias’ production, which reaches the Theatre Royal as part of a UK tour, prior to opening in London’s West End in May.
“If I have one fear,” he says, “it’s that people might be intimidated by the play’s reputation, or feel that they won’t understand it. But there is nothing difficult about this play and it’s our responsibility to make sure that every moment will have clarity for the audience.”
Godot, he continues, is not only filled with physical and verbal comedy, but is also deeply touching. He finds Vladimir’s tender concern for Estragon’s welfare particularly moving.
“Several weeks into rehearsal, there are sections I cannot read without getting upset.”
In both acts of the play, Vladimir and Estragon meet the brash Pozzo, played by Simon Callow, and his downtrodden servant, Lucky (Ronald Pickup).
Callow, a familiar face from films such as A Room with a View, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Shakespeare in Love, echoes Stewart by telling the story of a friend of his who acted in a student production of Godot, which toured universities in Ireland, the country of Beckett’s birth, in 1962.
“He told me that ‘We absolutely didn’t know what the play was about. But we found that if we just followed the rhythm of the dialogue, then in the audience there would be great laughter, followed by tears, almost systematically, throughout the performance’.”
Pickup, another hugely experienced stage and screen actor (his film and TV credits include The Mission and hit BBC comedy The Worst Week of My Life), has known McKellen since they joined the National Theatre company at London’s Old Vic on the same day in 1965.
He met and worked with Beckett in the 1970s and, after the writer’s death in 1989, had the honour of appearing at his memorial service, reading from one of his novels, Watt.
“In Godot,” Pickup says, “Beckett has thrown everything into the emotional pot. He keeps wrong- footing you, as actor and audience.”
He believes that all the theories about Godot “would have made Beckett laugh when he was alive and I’m sure he’s laughing now.
“The enigma that’s embedded in this play has allowed scholars to have a field day.
“That’s not knocking them - but it explains why Godot can be played in Beijing or Zimbabwe or here. It’s extraordinary how the same thing has kept on hitting all of us in rehearsal: the play is so accessible, so wonderfully psychologically apposite for any member of an audience.”
Waiting for Godot plays Newcastle Theatre Royal from tonight until Saturday. Returns only. Call 08448-112121.
See tomorrow’s Journal for David Whetstone’s review of tonight’s opening performance.