On the Phone With Sean Mathias

On the Phone With Sean Mathias

Sean Mathias (right) is doubly blessed. Not only is he directing two of the Broadway season’s most anticipated plays, Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, opening Nov. 24 and playing in repertory thru Mar. 2 at the Cort Theatre, he is guiding Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart—two actors who need no introduction—in both. Call it a tour de force whose time has come, as Mathias reveals in the following interview, conducted in late September when the plays were in rehearsal in New York.

Those unfamiliar with British-born Mathias’ directing résumé should know that his range is encyclopedic, from highbrow—Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (starring Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren)—to lowbrow—the pantomime Aladdin. He’s done Sondheim: A Little Night Music at the National Theatre and Company at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; and tried his hand at Tennessee Williams: Suddenly Last Summer in London’s West End. Mathias, who started his career as an actor, made his Broadway directorial debut in 1995, helming Indiscretions by Jean Cocteau. That production garnered nine Tony Award nominations, including one for Mathias and another for 22-year-old Jude Law, who memorably played a scene in the nude. While there is no nudity in either No Man’s Land or Waiting for Godot, there is much for theatergoers to savor. So, how did the project get off the ground?

FL: Was it your idea to pair the two plays?

SM: It was. It was serendipitous because I’d been talking to Ian about doing Godot in New York, and Patrick was talking about doing No Man’s Land in New York. I wasn’t sure that Patrick wanted to do Godot again [having played Vladimir to McKellen’s Estragon in a 2009 London production, also helmed by Mathias]. And I had tried to do No Man’s Land with Ian before, but he wasn’t interested. My partner said, Why don’t you tell them they can do both? That’s how the idea came about. And then, of course, I started thinking: The pairing is rather brilliant because there are [not only] two fabulous parts in each play [for McKellen and Stewart] but also two other parts in each for actors who are middle-aged or young middle-aged [played by Tony Award winners Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley]. Thematically, there’s so much crossover and connection, too. Suddenly, the idea didn’t just seem to be fortuitous, but had a real meaning and sense to it. So, I suggested we do a reading of No Man’s Land with Ian and Patrick. As soon as we read it out loud, Ian was much more seduced by the play and by the role. So the idea took flight.

FL: The original production of No Man’s Land, first in London [1975] and then on Broadway [1976], starred those two formidable theatrical knights, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. Do you think McKellen and Stewart can be considered the Gielgud and Richardson of today?

SM: What they have in common with those two actors is the fame, and the fact they spend a huge amount of their lives in the theater and have played a huge range of classical roles. Gielgud did film, but wasn’t so known on film. He had great success on television as an older actor. Richardson did have a success on film. Patrick and Ian are classical actors, but they’re also very contemporary, tuning into the zeitgeist with The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, X-Men and Star Trek. Between the two of them, they clean up in niche cinema and television rather nicely. In terms of being icons, yes, there are similarities between the four. As men, they’re nothing like Gielgud and Richardson. But in terms of their position, yes, I suppose so.

FL: What’s it like working with actors of their caliber? Do you take a different approach working with two seasoned knights?

SM: Actors are actors. If Ian and Patrick were actors who wanted to be treated in a special way, I don’t think I’d have any interest in working with them. When an actor comes into the rehearsal room, he wants to get on with his job, and he wants to do the best job he can. In that sense, Ian and Patrick are just actors.

FL: I read an interview in which you said, when referring to directing, “I like to play.”

SM: Oh, right. [laugh]

FL: It sounds like you value the freedom of the rehearsal process. Can you tell me a bit about how you get a play up on its feet? 

SM: It’s a serious leap of faith taking something you’ve read and then imagining it in a totally other form. I suppose one of the hardest things is to try and share your imagination with others, making them appreciate what you’re seeing and then being open to their imaginations as well. So, we do a fair amount of table work to begin with. And in that process no one starts by playing his own role. We all read the play, one speech at a time, going around the table. We discuss all the facts that are in the play rather than impose our concepts or visions or ideas onto it. At this point, the play and the writing are central, not the performances and therefore not egos. It helps to come to some common understanding of the play. There may be disagreements, but it will be a shared experience and a democratic experience. Although, as director, I lead it, I try not to manipulate it too much. I try to let it breathe, so that when the actors stand up to do moves, the moves are in a sense secondary because it’s the version of what the play is that is primary. And then the characters start to emerge from that, from the person’s understanding of the play. I think it probably works slightly more from the inside out because, if you worked from the outside in, you’d probably start with setting moves and making quite firm decisions about characters, whereas I encourage the actors to move more slowly and make decisions about character further down the road when they have much more knowledge of the play. Then, I think, you make the better and the deeper decisions.


FL: There’s a fair amount of ambiguity in both plays. Did you, as director, come to the rehearsal room with a fixed idea about each? 

SM: I didn’t. I [always] come to the rehearsal room with a passion to do that play. I wouldn’t work on a play that didn’t totally fascinate me and that I didn’t feel I had something to bring to it. I wouldn’t undertake it unless I thought I could bring something personal to it. Both plays … I didn’t know what on earth they were about. I just loved them. And weirdly, and this never happened to me before, I tried to do both plays two or three times before I actually did them. Godot I tried to do 20 years before I actually did it. And No Man’s Land I tried to do it about 10 years before I actually did it. And that’s very interesting. There is something about the timing of everything, of waiting until the right moment to do them. There have been tremendous discoveries in the [rehearsal] room, and that is partly because of the nature of the pieces. They’re full of mystery and nonlinear. In many ways, the Pinter is much more linear than the Beckett: You’re in a room in a place that we know about—London—with characters that are not exactly types but they are recognizable. In Godot, you could be absolutely anywhere.

FL: Is there a dream project that you have in mind as a follow-up to No Man’s Land and Waiting for Godot?

SM: I’d love to do another film. I’ve only directed one, Bent (1997). 

FL: An original script?

SM: Yes. So, that’s a call to writers. And I love working in America. So, I hope America will keep asking me back.


[A condensed version of this interview appears in the November 2013 issue of IN New York magazine.]



No Man's Land (top) and Waiting for Godot (bottom) © Joan Marcus, 2013


 >> No Man's Land and Waiting for Godot, Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., 212.239.6200