The Blog

Patrick Stewart's Understudy Joins Ian McKellen To Give Pinter New Punch

'Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, in a play by Harold Pinter' is a sentence that would make any theatre buff worth the title determined to get their hands on tickets, even if they had to kill kittens - or fork over £180 - to get them. But what happens when a nasty throat bug puts one of the stars out of action?

Harold Pinter - he of the most pregnant of pregnant pauses, the perennial master of pathos - didn't get the Nobel Prize for Literature for nothing. These days his works are served up with their own provenances; theatre programmes outlining a who's who of acting royalty who have taken on the roles over the years.

No Man's Land was first performed in 1975 with Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson, and like the future knights to whom the batons of the play's principal characters Hirst and Spooner would pass, they brought a well-known public friendship and working relationship to the stage.

Art doesn't occur in a vacuum and the casting, both then and now, of actors who are already public friends provides extraordinary comfort to the audience. Walking into the theatre expecting to see an internet meme brought to life starring Stewart (Hirst) and McKellen (Spooner) is a comforting blanket and a protective talisman against the verbal brutality of some of Pinter's lines.

As the opening scenes pile disconcerting silence onto clutching desperation, our fears are allayed by memories of the joyous relationship shared by the two actors - as seen on our social media feeds. This will not end in cataclysmic devastation, we think to ourselves, because Twitbook has to be more true than theatre.

At a recent performance, however, a gentleman walked in front of the stage before the lights dimmed and ground the audience's protective talisman into the lush theatre carpet with the heel of his shoe.

Sir Patrick is sick, he said. Throat. Doctor's orders. Andrew Jarvis is taking the stage.

One can only imagine the nervousness Jarvis must have felt stepping into those shoes, with - one must be able to assume - no small awareness of audience expectations. But by replacing Stewart, Jarvis gave the audience the gift of being able to abandon those same expectations of the characters to be portrayed and their relationship. He offered the audience the thrill of the unknown.

Once the cultural baggage of McKellen-and-Stewart was out of the way, it was nothing but the thrill of Pinter, just in the hands of a lesser-known master, more than holding his own next to the ever-extraordinary McKellen. And to prove it, the audience took to their feet as one when McKellen thanked his co-star during the curtain call.

Jarvis is no newcomer to the stage, with almost half a century of treading the boards, but without a Gandalf or Picard on his resume, he isn't the household name his colleagues are. To be an understudy summoned for duty must be both a dream come true and a nightmare, but not only did Jarvis get an extraordinary opportunity, so did we. With the focus back on Pinter's words rather than a celebrity partnership - albeit a formidably talented one - the themes of the work had the chance to be revealed with a new clarity. Decay, stasis, uncertainty, hope and desire were laid bare. The refrain repeated in the play, "you are in no man's land, which never changes, which never grows older, but remains forever, icy and silent," could be seen by the pessimistic as an apt summation of the understudy's art. There is a profound shift in the play's context when a mesmerising actor is called out of the shadows into the spotlight.

Besides, how many thousands of audience members saw Richardson play Spooner? Or Stewart? Even Pinter himself, who also played the role? But it is only we few, we happy few, who can say we saw Andrew Jarvis.