Ian McKellen (left) and Patrick Stewart during curtain call on the opening night of Waiting For Godot on Broadway in 2013. “There are not many plays with two equally good parts for men of our age, ‘ says McKellen.

Hollywood pals Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart bring play from London stage to the big screen

The two British actors, who worked together on several X-Men films, will do a live broadcast of their West End production No Man’s Land

One of the great theatrical bromances of our time is coming to the big screen.

Onstage co-stars and offstage pals Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are capping a West End run of Harold Pinter’s bruisingly funny No Man’s Land with a live broadcast to dozens of cinemas around the world on December 22. There are repeat screenings over the coming weeks as part of the UK National Theatre’s NT Live series.

The two eminent actors – both knighted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth – became friends while filming the superhero X-Men movies, and their onstage chemistry has blossomed alongside an exuberant offstage friendship, complete with Instagram selfies.

In 2009 they co-starred as the limbo-lost Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. In 2013 on Broadway, they paired Beckett’s drama with No Man’s Land, performing the two plays in repertory.

This year they headed back to Britain with Pinter’s tragicomedy about two writers: one struggling but hopeful, the other successful but trapped. As the play opens, McKellen’s eager Spooner has been invited to the grand home of Stewart’s imperious yet befuddled Hirst for an ocean of whisky and a titanic battle of wills.

The play was first staged in 1975, when Pinter was in his 40s. But 77-year-old McKellen says that “it seems to me at my age to be very much about how you cope with ageing”.

“One of the characters has a sort of dementia, and his new friend is trying to bring himself back into the real world, which is rather a dangerous thing to do with someone who is living in a fantasy,” McKellen said the morning before a recent performance at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre.

In typical Pinter style, No Man’s Land is frequently mysterious and often bleak. But the interaction of McKellen’s nervy and garrulous Spooner and Stewart’s alternately jovial and menacing Hirst is also very funny. There’s a bravura comic scene in which the two swap increasingly unlikely reminiscences in a game of nostalgic one-upmanship.
The two actors became friends after starring as enemies in the X-Men film series.

“The play is constantly about the shifting of power,” said Sean Mathias, who directed both Godot and No Man’s Land – and the two lead actors “have a natural chemistry”.

“They are so different and I think there is a kind of contrast that works between them,” Mathias said.

McKellen says the two men were drawn together by their shared background. They are a similar age – McKellen is 77, Stewart 76 – and both come from modest backgrounds in the north of England. Both worked early in their careers at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and both played roles in sci-fi and fantasy – McKellen as wizard Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

And neither is thinking about retirement.

McKellen says “I’ve never had a wish list of parts I’ve wanted to play. I always assumed that I would play Romeo one day, and I did; and Hamlet, and I did,” he said.

“There’s nothing that I really want to do. Apart from a musical – but I can’t sing or dance, so I suppose that’s not going to happen.”

Don’t bet against it. McKellen says he plans to nurture his musical side once No Man’s Land ends its run on Saturday. “My next treat to myself is learning to play the piano.”

He would love to reunite with Stewart and Mathias, though he says the classic repertoire is short on strong double acts for senior actors.

“There are not many plays with two equally good parts for men of our age – very few,” McKellen said. “So someone had better get writing.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Double act signs off with live screening