Monday, 24 March 2014

A Trip to Broadway: Mckellen and Stewart in Waiting for Godot

It was my first time in New York. My friends and I flew out the morning of the 19th, prepared to fly again that evening, only willing to make such a lengthy journey for the sole purpose of seeing a play, Waiting For Godot. The city itself was as monumental as I expected – gathering all my impressions from various depictions in novels and films – but while I was dazzled by the rush and burble of the streets, the real wonderment lay within the quieter walls of the Cort Theatre.

We picked up our tickets a few blocks away, close to Time Square, walking through a few more sights of the city, until reaching the Cort. Already there was a line to get in, all for ticket holders, and shortly after we arrived the line doubled and tripled until I couldn’t see the end of it. The marquee showed the four actors we were about to see and instantly I could not help from smiling. The singular faces that looked upon me were Ian Mckellen, Patrick Stewart, Billy Crudup (who I did not know I would be seeing at that point), and Shuler Hensley. My inner-geek was promptly screaming out for Lord of the Rings, X-men, Star Trek, and Watchmen.


We sat on the highest balcony, four rows up from the ledge, perched on the edge of our red seats. The stage was cast in low light and had simple furnishings: wooden deck panels on the floor, raised slightly upstage; a single barren tree; a small stone bench; all lined with a border of rock and brick tracing background.

The audience wasn’t full, being a matinee, and was scattered with groups of high school students and teachers, older couples and vacationers, young folks and even single viewers. Beside me sat a man of the latter type, telling me he had picked up a discount ticket just that day.

After the final audience members had filed into their seats, the house lights were brought down, and as if the air had instantly been removed from the theatre, everyone immediately silenced. Not a breath or shifting stir could be heard. I have yet to watch a movie and have this happen, but I am still waiting for that day. Then, from behind the rock trimming, a hand and an arm shot out, then a hat, followed by an old man sluggishly climbing over. Mckellen rose from beyond sight.

To skip the summary of the entire play, as the two giants entered the stage the audience applauded as was due, and that same elation lasted until the end of the performance. Mckellen and Stewart were funnier than I ever thought they could be. The two old friends traded lines so smoothly I could have sworn their lines were lubricated. It was really a privilege to watch them in the moment.

The ensuing antics of all four actors, the two old men paired with the wild exaggerated characters of Lucky (Crudup) and Pozzo (Hensley), served as some of the most engrossing acting I’ve seen in a long time. It wasn’t that I believed these actors really were who they were playing (I don’t think that’s what theatre does), it’s that I could feel the energy and mastery of the actors, as if it were a thick paste spread over the entire room.

At the end of the play, after the bows and standing ovations, Mckellen and Stewart exited the stage last, on opposite sides each other, then threw their hats centre stage, which hit each other and remained. This simple act was what blew the performance out of the water for me. There was something so perfect about the moment, about the meaning behind the hats, about leaving them there while the audience left – it was a purely romantic gesture. I wish I had taken a picture, but now the image will just have to remain in description, and in my memory.

Here is what I’ve wanted to say: I was brought to the theatre, and thus New York, on the pretence of witnessing live the wondrous aura of Gandalf, Captain Picard, Magneto, and Professor Charles Xavier all at once – a geek’s wet dream. I was not only going to see them, such as I would at a convention, but view them acting, moving, breathing in their element. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to see this.

But as much as I love film and television, I learned that putting a screen in between the experience of the creators and the experience of the audience filters out an important immediacy in the art form of acting. Yes, I was bored at times watching the play. No, I didn’t get to see the actors as well as I wanted to. But those things, among others, are worth the sacrifice in order to see experts do what they do best. Within five minutes of the performance, I wasn’t watching as a geek anymore – Magneto and Professor X weren’t on stage. These were the real men, their roles as superheroes superfluous fractions of what these actors really were capable of.

And something very important happened at the culmination of that play. I was more enthralled with playwriting than I ever have been. To paraphrase Adam Elliot, I did not just want to grab a hold of life, I wanted to strangle it – specifically the life of writing. Now, I’m an amateur writer who writes mainly in prose, but seeing a person’s work elevated to that level made me hungry for the chance to create something similar.

My advice here is not to go see live theatre so you can get excited about life again. Instead, if you are excited about creating something – be it art, writing, music, a business, even a blog – see it happen in the moment, when there is life injected into its creation. See music live, get on set, support a local playwright. It may not work, but what I do know is that I’ve rarely felt more elated than I did the moment two old men through their hats centre stage. 

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