Pete Postlethwaite: a sense of loss

Driving past The Everyman this morning I felt sadness and a sense of loss, thinking of Pete Postlethwaite and the times I’ve seen him perform there.  Most recently, of course, it was as Lear in the 2008 production for Capital of Culture year; aspects of that production may have been questioned, but there was no arguing with the power and conviction of Postlethwaite’s performance.  And that was the man: his acting always convincing and forceful, whether on stage or the big screen.

Back in the early 1970s, that classic period of the Everyman, I saw him in several productions, including The Good Woman of Setzuan, Cantril Tales (a typical Everyman scouse adaptation of Chaucer’s original) and – most memorably – as a fearsome Gunner O’Rourke in John McGrath’s The Bofors Gun.  He also appeared in Under New Management, the story of the workers who resisted redundancy at the Fisher-Bendix factory in Kirkby by occupying the plant, in the role of Jack Spriggs, the union convenor.

Postlethwaite was born just down the road in Warrington, the son of a barrel-maker.  His original ambition was to be a priest, but he became a teacher before pursuing his real passion for the stage in the early 1970s: “I thought, ‘You can’t possibly be an actor, somebody from Warrington. It’s not what you do.’ So I thought I’d go and teach for a couple of years, and if at the end of that time I still wanted to act then I’d do it.”

At the Everyman in the early 1970s, he worked alongside talents such as Julie Walters, Bill Nighy, Jonathan Pryce, Alan Bleasdale, Matthew Kelly and Antony Sher, and under artistic director Alan Dossor.

Peter Bradshaw’s piece in today’s Guardian was a reminder of how many films Pete Postlethwaite has appeared in – and  why film directors loved him:

His face could suggest brutality, cruelty and violence – or precisely the opposite. It could be the face of a man who was stoically enduring these things, and quietly and heroically declining to reply in kind. His face had a gentleness and sweetness that the brush of Lucian Freud could not, I think, catch. But the camera lens did.

Postlethwaite’s performances as the authoritarian and father in Terence Davies’s film Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) was outstanding, as was his portrayal of Danny, the leader of the Yorkshire colliery brass band struggling to survive following the closure of their pit in Brassed Off.  Perhaps his finest moment comes with Danny’s speech when the band have won national brass band competition.

In 2009, Postlethwaite made a documentary, The Age of Stupid, on climate change, a subject he felt passionately about. In the film, he plays the last man alive. Postlethwaite was a political activist who practised what he preached: he lived in Shropshire in an eco-house complete with wind turbine and solar panelling.

In an interview at the time of his performance as Prospero at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in 2007, Postlethwaite spoke of a strong sense of mortality governing his life-choices:

Let death be your adviser…you have to live every day as fully as you can.