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.


Jonathan Pryce returns to the Everyman

I said to this monk, here, I said, look here, mister, he opened the door, big door, he opened it, look here mister, I said, I showed him these, I said, you haven’t got a pair of shoes, have you, a pair of shoes, I said, enough to help me on my way. Look at these, they’re nearly out, I said, they’re no good to me. I heard you got a stock of shoes here. Piss off, he said to me.

Tonight the four of us went to the Everyman to see Jonathan Pryce in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker.  It was a return to the Everyman stage for Pryce, who joined the Everyman company, then under the direction of Alan Dossor, in 1972. As the programme notes, it is appropriate  that the Everyman should be staging a revival of The Caretaker this year. 45 years ago, in October 1964, Peter James, one of the Everyman’s founding fathers, directed a production of the Pinter classic. It is a play that also has a special association for Jonathan who gave a celebrated performance as Mick in a National Theatre staging in 1980. The director Christopher Morahan and designer Eileen Diss both have a deep knowledge and experience of Pinter’s plays and worked together on the 1972 production of The Caretaker.

This is the first major Pinter production since his death.  Jonathan Pryce plays the tramp Davies, Peter McDonald plays Aston who brings Davies home to his attic flat, and playing Aston’s violent brother Mick is Tom Brooke. The three performances were excellent, with Jonathan Pryce outstanding and believable in the central role (which must be truly demanding – he’s on stage throughout the play). The set design and lighting also contributed to an atmospheric production.

From The Guardian review:

Pryce gives a first-rate performance that gradually reveals the viper lurking underneath the vagrant as he ruinously transfers his loyalty from the hospitable Aston to his hostile brother, Mick. What is impressive about Pryce, a battered tramp with an El Greco face, is his ability to catch the sudden shifts within Pinter’s character. One minute Pryce is laughing about the memory of being spurned by a Luton monk: the next he’s reliving his cry of rage as he asked the offensive priest: “What do you think I am, a wild animal?”

And this transformation provides the key to Pryce’s interpretation. His Davies is full of echoes of remembered gentility as he neatly folds his trousers over a chair. But beneath that lurks an animalistic instinct for territory and a savage cruelty: rarely have I seen the moment when Davies turns on the charitable Aston played with such violence as Pryce sadistically mocks his supposed insanity. In Pryce’s hands, Davies becomes a man who, excluded from society, lives by the laws of the jungle…

But what this revival confirms, above all, is the durability of Pinter’s marvellous play. It is open to endless interpretations. In the last analysis, however, it is a richly poetic work about three men in a room who are all sustained by individual pipe-dreams and hopeless illusions and at the same time are engaged in a battle for power. It’s a domestic play but also, as John Gross once wrote, a deeply political one in that “its basic image of life is one of ceaseless struggle.” And, as Pryce’s memorably shiftless outsider reminds us, it is a struggle in which there is only one decisive loser.

The Caretaker was the first of Pinter’s plays to bring him artistic and commercial success as well as national recognition. Opening on April 27, 1960, at the Arts Theatre in London, The Caretaker was an immediate hit with audiences as well as critics, receiving mostly favorable reviews. In addition, The Caretaker received the Evening Standard Award for best play of 1960.

The Caretaker is funny, up to a point. Beyond that point it ceases to be funny, and it was because of that point that I wrote it’.
Harold Pinter

‘Last year Christopher Morahan asked me if I had ever thought of playing Davies. I said ‘yes, I want to do it in Liverpool’. Before his death Harold had given his blessing for this production. He knew how much the Everyman meant to me and was hoping to come and see it … we will try and honour a great man in a great theatre.’
Jonathan Pryce

Pinter wrote The Caretaker in the autumn of 1958 whilst living in two rooms in Chiswick with his wife, Vivienne Merchant. In the same house lived two brothers; one had a history of mental illness and brought a homeless man to live with him. Although what happens in the play is the result of Pinter’s imagination, these people were the starting point for his story.

I went into a room and saw one person standing up and one person sitting down, and few weeks later I wrote The Room. I went into another room and saw two people sitting down, and a few years later I wrote The Birthday Party. I looked through a door into a third room and saw two people standing up and I wrote The Caretaker.
Harold Pinter

The play suggests parallels with Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, especially in Davies’ repeated intention to affirm his identity and recover his papers by journeying to Sidcup.


King Lear at the Everyman

King Lear at the Everyman

Four of us went to see Peter Postlethwaite’s Lear at the Everyman tonight.  It’s resolved itself (after some early difficulties, apparently) into an impressive production with a moving central performance by Postlethwaite.

This is from the Daily Post review:

King Lear, at the Everyman, is one of the most eagerly anticipated Culture Year events, and expectations were high. Award-winning director Rupert Goold, who has already made a huge impact as one of theatre’s hottest talents, is widely attracting as many superlatives as his Liverpudlian Lear.

And last night they showed it was with good reason… Postlethwaite’s king is played with a gentle, ever-present humour and vulnerability. Lear is no enraged, roaring yet doddering fool, but prey to a sympathetic confusion. His insanity, tinged as it is with a sort of whimsy, is a contrast to the grisly, sometimes stomach-churning, and deadly deeds going on round him.

His daughters, Regan (Charlotte Randal) and Goneril (Caroline Faber), and the banished yet pure-hearted Cordelia (Amanda Hale) are excellent, in command of their dialogue and bursting with their own drives and passions.

JonJo O’Neill uses Irish charm to humanise the misdoings of psychotic bastard son Edmund, channelling his soliloquies with vigour and without the indulgent overacting they can be prone to.

Goold is clearly unafraid to grab Shakespeare’s text firmly and give it a vibrant shake. Contemporary touches and mischievous additions are executed with confidence and imagination. It is easy to get swept into the all-encompassing storm  and almost feel part of the action, as in the opening scene the characters clap and sing For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow to Lear as he emerges from the audience. This Lear sinks into the skin of the viewer to provide a truly memorable piece of theatre.

From the Chester Chronicle:

This portrayal of the deeply flawed monarch expertly emphasises the character’s many faults and supreme arrogance to the extent that you almost look forward to seeing his downfall after he stupidly banishes both Cordelia and Kent for not telling him how wonderful he is.

As compelling as these opening scenes may be, you wonder if Postlethwaite may have gone a little too far in stripping Lear of virtually any sympathy – a risky strategy when one’s involvement with later scenes relies so heavily on empathising with his spectacular downfall.  But we are in the hands of a masterly actor here and, almost without realising it, we begin to side with him as his predatory daughters Goneril and Regan plot against their father (and then inevitably against each other).

The suffering they inflict upon him is so devastating that eventually we do end up agreeing with Lear that he is “more sinned against than sinning”. Lest you think this is a one man show, praise should be heaped on just about everyone else in the cast who more than adequately raise their game to match the star.

Caroline Faber and Charlotte Randle keep Goneril and Regan the right side of pantomime villainy; Jonjo O’Neill brilliantly mines the black humour that is so vital to the success of the diabolical Edmund; Nigel Cooke makes for a versatile and commanding Kent; while TV and stage veteran John Shrapnel is heartbreaking as the brutally tortured Gloucester. All this and more is marshalled magnificently by director Rupert Gould who ensures this is a Lear for the 21st century with touches of reality TV early on giving way to vivid depictions of modern warfare.

Perhaps, though, his most daring presumption was to take one of the greatest oversights in the Shakespeare Canon – the inexplicable disappearance of the Fool (splendid Forbes Masson) two thirds of the way through – and inventively provide the character with a full story arc.

This is a lusty, bloody and hugely relevant Lear for our times and it deserves to be regarded as both a landmark production of the play and the theatrical highlight of Liverpool’s Capital of Culture year.

Pete Postlethwaite – born in Warrington – joined the incomparable Alan Dosser company at the Everyman in the 1970s that included Julie Walters, Matthew Kelly, Bill Nighy, Anthony Sher, Trevor Eve, Jonathan Pryce, George Costigan and Alison Steadman.

‘It was an exceptional time in anybody’s theatrical history, I think,’ Pete says in a BBC interview.

If you looked at that list of names now you’d say they would never be in the same room, building, county or country together, let alone in one small tatty little derelict theatre called the Everyman on Hope Street, it was an absolute pantheon of stars. Now when you think of Bill Nighy, Jonathan Pryce, Julie Walters, George Costigan, Mathew Kelly, the list goes on and on. It was a phenomenal time, a creative inspirational, exciting, dangerous, provoking, illogical, magical mystery tour, really just brilliant. It taught me why I want to be an actor, so I’m ever grateful for that.

There’s something uniquely Everyman about the Everyman. Ask me to define that and I’d be lost but it didn’t matter what the shape of the stage was, there was an ethos, a feeling, something in the air in the Everyman. I used to live in Canning Street and I remember standing the opposite side of the Philharmonic just thinking ‘This is it, this is what I want to do’ there’s no going back or forward.

Running the Silk Road

We’ve been to see Yellow Earth Theatre perform Running the Silk Road at the Everyman. Written by Paul Sirett and directed by David Tse Ka-shing, it’s a  richly visual production, telling a modern story mixed with Chinese myths.

In the year of the Beijing Olympics, a group of friends from London set themselves an epic challenge – to run the ancient Silk Road trading route to China, carrying an “alternative” Olympic flame. Once on the road, complications and conflict test friendships and soon threaten their chances of success. Weaving in and out of the contemporary story are the magical and timeless myths, performed using the spectacularly acrobatic, whirling excitement of the Beijing Opera Theatre.

This is the Guardian’s review:

It is a given that good drama takes you on a journey. Paul Sirett’s play takes you further than most – more than 5,000 miles in fact, as Ken Fung, a student of Chinese mythology, pledges to tackle global warming by carrying an alternative Olympic torch along the ancient trading route from Turkey to Beijing.

If that sounds ambitious, you should read some of the stage directions, which call for the hero to be engulfed in a flood, while the demigod Yu is born by parthenogenesis from his belly. It is the kind of image that would be beyond the scope of companies other than British east Asian ensemble Yellow Earth, whose bilingual production (in English and subtitled Mandarin) features performers from the Beijing Opera.

The Silk Road is a lot to cover in 90 minutes, though David Tse Ka-Shing’s production hurtles along, as Ken and his three running mates are faced with locusts, bandits and Kazakh mechanics who want to sell them an old Soviet truck.

There is a naivety about these characters that accounts for their undertaking such a scheme in the first place; though it is in the moments when Ken collapses with exhaustion and is visited by apparitions from the Chinese Opera that the production finds a different level. The running battle between Shen Feng’s God of Thunder and Yanzhong Huang’s Queller of the Flood is an epic tussle of incredible agility, while the cast demonstrate sinuous expertise in the manipulation of various dragons, serpents and giant insects.

Nick Chee Ping Kellington endearingly plays Ken as a bookish nerd whose original plan to complete a daily half-marathon is over-ambitious – though with all those Chinese deities erupting from his stomach, he must have had a bellyful.

Running The Silk Road preview


Endgame at the Everyman

Went to the Everyman to see Lucy Pitman-Wallace’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. It was excellent.

“We lose our hair, our teeth, our bloom, our ideals”: Hamm

Endgame is a one-act play with four characters. It was originally written in French, and first performed in London in April 1957. There are just four characters: Hamm, the aged master who is blind and unable to stand, his servant Clov, who cannot sit down, and Hamm’s legless parents Nagg and Nell, who live in rubbish bins upstage and initially request food or argue inanely. The two main characters, mutually dependent, have been fighting for years and continue to do so as the play progresses. Clov always wants to leave but never seems to be able.

“Pitman-Wallace’s direction has the astringency one expects from Beckett, but also a sense of compassion that makes the play entirely accessible.”
The Guardian

Endgame: extract with Rick Cluchey as Hamm

From the San Quentin Drama Workshop production of “Beckett Directs Beckett” a film made in 1991 by Alan Mandell