McKellen in conversation is the more voluble, his fingers ever in motion directing the flow of his cascading fluency. Articulate in his own discreet fashion, Stewart has about him a beatific stillness, a gentle strength. These personal styles are in perfect complement in "No Man's Land": Stewart's physical eloquence balancing McKellen's verbal finesse.
Best of all is their sixth sense, sharpened by years of practice, for when theatergoers are in on the joke.
Peter Hall, who directed the original production of "No Man's Land," reports in his "Diaries" that Gielgud told Pinter that acting in his plays "was like playing Congreve or Wilde. It needed a consciousness of the audience, a manipulation of them which was precisely the same as for high classical comedy."
"To hear audiences — and they're bright in Berkeley — enjoy the play at the simple level of finding it amusing — I'm sure that's just what Pinter wanted," McKellen said. "He's a master of language, rhetorical, poetical, but what anchors it for me is the comedy."
Yet if spectators are free to enjoy the puzzling antics of the characters — all of whom are named after English cricket players in this sporting drama of offense and defense — the actors themselves cannot afford to be uncertain about who they are playing.
Did Hirst and Spooner really know each other at Oxford? Did Hirst seduce Spooner's wife? Was Spooner ever even married? Does it even matter?
While acknowledging that it isn't always helpful in Shakespeare, Beckett and Pinter to be "rooting around a character's past if you aren't getting the rhythm of a line right," McKellen asserted, "We're post-Freudian actors. I don't know any other way to act." To illustrate his point, he held up a wedding ring that he said belongs not to him but to his character.
"I wear it all through the performance so that anyone can pick up on it," he said. "Yes, Spooner is married, though he doesn't live with his wife anymore. When I boast of having a wife and children in the country, this is rather what he wishes he had but doesn't anymore. "
Stewart expressed delight in McKellen's revelation, explaining, "As we did with 'Godot,' we both have secrets that we keep from each other."
Is there a connection between the Beckett and Pinter plays? Neither McKellen nor Stewart was inclined to hold forth on the existential meaning of these absurdist classics. Keeping it concrete was the priority.
"Hirst and Spooner meet in a famous pub," McKellen said. "Jack Straw's Castle was a real pub. These are real inhabitants of London. You can't play an emblem. Other people can see what they like about the human condition, but in 'Godot," my guy is called Estragon, he has a friend called Vladimir, and they used to have a musical act called Didi and Gogo. That's what we seemed to discover."
The knights have become passionate public advocates — McKellen for gay rights, Stewart for bringing attention to the problem of domestic violence. Actors of their stature aren't known for their selflessness, but there was a refreshing lack of ego in the room.
Dropping his voice as though to reveal a confidence, McKellen said, "Before the curtain goes up, I'm thinking, 'I just walked over from Jack Straw's Castle — I wonder how long it was. I wonder if I had to help him up the steps. Did I expect to be invited in and all those things?' And then I look at Patrick's back, and I think, 'Oh, it's going to be all right.'"
Stewart roared with laughter before saying, "This really is to Ian's credit because before we started rehearsing 'Waiting for Godot,' he said, 'You know, I think we should share a dressing room because we cannot begin this play when we meet onstage. We have to begin it at least a half-hour, 45 minutes earlier.' I think this connected us in the 'Godot' and continues to connect us for this play."
"Although we've not worked together often, we've been having parallel careers," McKellen said. "We speak the same language, we know the same directors, we know the same dressing rooms, and the problems of playing Macbeth. And one of the things we have in common is that we'll go on doing it as long as we're allowed."
Thankfully, there's no shortage of mature characters. Hirst and Spooner are in their 60s, but they seem older, ravaged as they are by drink. As for Vladimir and Estragon, McKellen said, "The revelation of our production of 'Godot' is that old age is exactly what it's about: one man has a prostate problem, the other has a problem with his feet and his memory. And we all know about those things."
McKellen has been enjoying a television resurgence with his contemporary Derek Jacobi. The two have just completed the first season of the British sitcom "Vicious," playing — trend alert — a bickering senior gay couple.
"All my friends hate it," said McKellen. "Audiences who like it, like it enormously. It's very old-fashioned, and Derek and I, we act something shamelessly in it."
"If you're lucky and you're continuing to work as we have been lucky, then nothing is wasted," observed Stewart, who said that he's even been able to funnel the slight rheumatism in his hands into his performance in "No Man's Land."
McKellen quipped, "The joke is that you start in the company playing Barnardo in the first act of 'Hamlet,' then you graduate to play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, then it's Horatio, then maybe Laertes and possibly Hamlet. Then you start playing Claudius and then Polonius — and then you play the skull, though we're not quite there yet."