First, a little back-story.
As you’ll see by looking at my Theatre Scores, I’ve actually already seen No Man’s Land. It was London in 2008, and is 1 of only 3 productions I’ve ever given an A+ to. Why? It made me feel things I’ve never felt before, most notably among them: menace levied by dark humor. The wind and release of tension was so masterful that by the end of the show I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh about the whole thing or curl up in a ball and cry myself to sleep.
The imposing stature and unpredictable nature of Michael Gambon’s Hirst paired with the no-nonsense-fuck-you-ery of David Walliams and Nick Dunning’s performances set against the uncomfortable and squirming nature of David Bradley as Spooner put me in a thoroughly nauseated state– the best kind of nauseated state.
During the show I was convinced that at any moment someone was about to die (oh that menace!); I hung on every word said by every character, convinced it could be the last word they ever said before either killing someone, or being killed themselves. The sense of displacement, of failure, of hopelessness was all so very tangible. So very real. I’ve thought about that production often in the five years since– a true reminder of the power of theater, done right.
So as you can imagine, I was thrilled to see that the show was being done again in NYC, this time with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, my very favoritest old people best friends. Always aware that I am currently young and not-yet encumbered by countless children, I decided to organize a posse and make a go at rush tickets. Based on my Death of a Salesman experience, I knew this would require waking up at an ungodly hour on a day I’d usually be catching up on sleep, but to get $200 tickets for $30 kind of makes it all worth it– plus this time I’d have friends! And– once I actually saw the rush policy, it seemed too good to be true: No Man’s Land was being performed in repertory with Waiting for Godot (same cast), and if we got rush tickets on a day when one show was the matinee and other was the evening show, we could buy 1 rush ticket to each show! And if that wasn’t excellent enough, I then also learned that the entire front row of the theater was being reserved for rush ticket holders. WHAT?!
Saturday November 16th, we ventured to the Cort theater at about 6:30 AM to find one person already in line, a young aspiring actor named Ned who at 1 AM had driven all the way from Ithaca, so joyoused by the notion of seeing this. We made him feel good about his timing since he had only arrived 20 minutes before us, and we felt good about our timing, since by 7 AM a large group arrived behind us. From there on the line just kept swelling. We had a jolly morning telling stories of the type you only tell when you’re mentally exhausted, watching a live taping of the real Fox and Friends, not-being-bombarded-by-street-construction (Death of a Salesman experience) and and by the time the box office opened at 10 AM the line was insanely long. At 9:50 AM, a young man and woman arrived in a private car, presumably thinking that 10 minutes was enough leeway to guarantee them rush tickets, then quickly made a spectacle out of their clear hatred for the situation (and by extension, each other), eventually storming off in opposite directions.
So we got our tickets and it worked out great– front row center to both shows. However, we realized all too late that our new friend Ned actually only bought 1 ticket when he could have bought 2 (he needed to drive back to Ithaca after the matinee show). Dammit! We could have asked him to buy his second ticket on our behalf so we could get another friend into a show. Oh well– we told ourselves that hopefully the final person who gets a ticket thanks to our non-greediness will be enormously thrilled by their good fortune (I imagined a Tiny Tim-esque boychild leaping in glee while supporting himself on his tiny wooden crutch). The reality turned out to be almost that good– our friend Alex Graham arrived at 8:15 AM, uncertain if he would be able to get a ticket since the line was already pretty long at that point. We told him to stick around– he might get lucky. You’re probably ahead of me at this point but you’re right– he got the last ticket. Oh happy day! His seat was up in one of the $220 premium boxes, and he was grinning ear to ear through the entire performance of Waiting for Godot.
With our tickets in hand, we had to find a way to pass the time until the first performance at 2 PM (No Man’s Land) so we went up to Dan’s and worked on board game stuff while Liz slept. Grabbed a wonderful bite at a diner, then ventured into the first show praying that we wouldn’t fall asleep. Goodness gracious, our seats were pressed up right against the front of the stage! How cool.
After the first show, we visited the Nintendo Store at Rockefeller Plaza, then found an empty cafeteria place that had horrible food but space and quiet to play Yomi and Rivals for Catan until the 8 PM show started. And yeah! That was… well, you’ll see in my mini-review.
So just kidding, that was a lot of backstory.
Last note before my show-thoughts. I considered reviewing these two productions separately, but by seeing them both in one day, one after the other, they’re inextricably linked in my mind. The shows also had so much in common, from the fallacy of memory, to the nature of reality, to the absurd nature of several of the characters, that is just seems natural to discuss the two in tandem.
Here we go.
- All four leads shined in their dual casting. More than anything, I was blown away by the deliberateness of the movement of each actor. I think of Ian McKellen breaking my heart in a moment in No Man’s Land when he reaches toward Hirst after being accused of never helping him. I think of Billy Crudup’s disturbingly vivid portrayal of Lucky in Waiting for Godot, even more heart-wrenching after seeing his Jude Law in Sleuth-evoking performance as Foster. True masters of their craft.
- The set design was gorgeous, drawing parallels between the shows with a sense of decay, peeling, and looming elements while also detailing their differences– the stark, barren wasteland of a post-apocalyptic Waiting for Godot versus the decadent yet suffocating world of Hirst’s living room in No Man’s Land.
- I’d never seen Waiting for Godot, and while I consider it to be a little more light-hearted and absurd than No Man’s Land, it is fun to speculate on the world in which it lives. The obvious answer seems to be ‘after the rapture’, full of language like ‘then we’ll be saved’ and even images like Ian McKellen’s empty shoes front and center at the end of Act 1. However, the play reminded me most strongly of the days I’ve spent waiting for a repairman to arrive at my apartment, never to show. Seriously– it captured that frustration and awkward ‘how do we pass the time’ sensation perfectly. Ah, the beauty of interpretation. Also, although No Man’s Land as a whole hits me deeper in the core of my being, I’ll likely be having nightmares about Pozzo and Lucky for the next few weeks.
- The writing in general is top notch– both shows lend themselves to either washing over you, or line-by-line scrutiny depending on how you want to take it in.
- Loved the way the shows talked to each other– I had to convince people it was all in the script! My favorite moments: 1) In No Man’s Land, as though commenting on Waiting for Godot: “Can you imagine the two of us gabbing away like I am? It would be intolerable.” 2) In Waiting for Godot, as though referencing Ian McKellen’s part in No Man’s Land: “Don’t I look like a poet?” 3) Finally, Ian McKellen seemingly commenting on his film roles when he says in Waiting for Godot: “I’ve always compared myself to Christ.”
- Music and sound cues were spare in both shows but struck just the right mood.
- The comic timing of these guys is impeccable. Any one of them could do stand-up comedy.
- As great actors as Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are, there’s just no hiding what great friends they are. In Waiting for Godot, this is an asset. In No Man’s Land, it removes much of the menace of the show.
- A giant gob of Ian McKellen spit on Lucky’s hat was super distracting. Also the fact that we could see Ian McKellen’s injured leg before he actually received the injury.
- I think a case could be made that both shows were played just a little too much for laughs, removing some potentially potent dramatic energy. Honestly, both these shows are still sitting with me, and I’ll likely continue to update this review as I see fit.
Tales from After the Show…
- Normally I’d hang out at the stagedoor after a show to enjoy seeing an actor out of character interacting the a mass of fans, but we were all so very tired by 11 PM that we skipped all that. Too bad… I had a small glimmer of hope that, video camera in hand, I might be able to get Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart to read the audition lines for the casting call for the 17-year old leads of Star Wars Episode VII. You know that would’ve gone viral.