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Patrick Stewart interview: Waiting for Godot, King's Theatre, Leven Street

PATRICK STEWART is excited. Next week, he will boldly go where he has never gone before when he steps onto the stage of Edinburgh's King's Theatre.

"I don't think, when I was on tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company, that we ever played Edinburgh," he muses, pausing for a moment to convince himself that his memory has served him properly.

"I did do a piece of filming for two or three days only, but I have never performed live in Edinburgh. So I am regarding coming to Edinburgh as a first time experience and looking on this as my Edinburgh debut."

Now a youthful 68 years old, the man known to millions around the world as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation will make that debut in a modern classic that he has waited more than five decades to tackle, Samuel Beckett's tragic comedy, Waiting For Godot.

"I saw this show performed at the Bristol Theatre Royal, which was a Rep theatre, when I was a 17-year-old student," he reveals. "I was lucky enough to see a young unknown actor called Peter O'Toole play the role of Vladimir.

"I was dazzled by that evening. Confused, alarmed, frightened and excited by this extraordinary new kind of theatre that I had never seen before. And I promised myself then, that one day, if I got the chance to be in the play, I would grab it. It turned up a year ago."

After such a long wait, Stewart, who tours with the piece to the Capital later this month, admits that despite a few initial apprehensions, the opportunity to fulfil his long- held dream proved irresistible when he discovered who he would be playing opposite.

"From time to time I thought about it, but I also realised that the more work I did and the more experienced I became, the more frightened I became of the role and the play. I became somewhat intimidated by them.

"However, when it became clear that I was being asked to do this with my old friend and colleague and Shakespearean, Ian McKellen, it was irresistible.

"Then, when we added the two extraordinary actors Ronald Pickup and Simon Callow to the cast, this was not something one could for a moment think of turning down. And it has proved, and is proving to be an experience of a lifetime."

Once described as "the most significant English language play of the 20th century" (despite the fact that it was written in French) Waiting for Godot follows two consecutive days in the lives of two tramps, Vladimir, played by Stewart, and Estragon, who divert themselves by clowning around, joking and arguing, while waiting expectantly and unsuccessfully for the mysterious Godot.

As already touched on, the play reunites Stewart with Sir Ian McKellen (Estragon), with whom he first worked in 1977, on a production of Tom Stoppard's Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.

More recently the pair have sparred as Magneto and Professor Xavier in the X-Men films and Stewart insists that it is only their long-standing friendship that allows them to create the necessary dynamic to bring their characters to life on the stage.

"We have taken it so far as to insist on sharing a dressing room, so that the two of us are together for at least 45 minutes before every performance, so that by the time we go on stage we are connected.

"You can't do this as you might a conventional play, meeting someone for the first time that day when you see them on stage.

"Frankly I wouldn't know how else the play could be performed. The fact that Ian and I are practically the same age; that we are both Northerners separated only by the Pennines; that we were both passionate about Shakespeare from an early age and pursued that passion into a professional career . . .

"That we both of us had good fortune in film and television to have international commercial success - there are so many things that link us together.

"There are the years that we both worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and then we were brought together by something as extraordinary and unexpected as a comic book movie franchise, which was X-Men.

"Yes, all of that I think has gone into our joint exploration of this play and brought us to a place where we can, in a sense, perform this play like music."

Having mentioned their commercial success, Stewart confesses that he has no qualms about using it to attract new audiences to the theatre.

"That has been my story for years now. From 1990, when I was in the middle of the seven years of Star Trek, I began performing a one-man version of Christmas Carol and I found then, to my delight, that it was attracting huge numbers of people who had never seen me on stage before. Many had never been at the theatre before and many probably had little experience of Dickens.

"So I like to think that in some small way the popular success that I have in television has helped create a new audience for theatre.

"Ian has done exactly the same thing with his huge success as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings. Now here we are, the two of us together. We know, because we meet people in the street or at the stage door, that there are people coming to see this play who probably might not have been drawn to it were it not for Ian and myself being in it. And they are telling us that they are having a wonderful time and they will come and see more theatre.

"Over the years there has been a lot of criticism of film and television people turning to the theatre. I've often thought this is utterly unjustified.

"Actors do whatever they can. I don't care why people come to the theatre – I just want to see them there. Once we have got them there, we can do the rest."

Unlike many of the fans attracted by his TV persona, as a boy Stewart was surrounded by live performance, although it wasn't until after he had turned professional that he discovered there was a family history of treading the boards.

"My father's father had been linked to the theatre in a variety of different ways, as a stage carpenter, as a technician and eventually as a performer. I only learned this just before my grandmother died.

"He had deserted his wife and their four children and was, therefore, an individual who was never spoken of in my family.

"Although he behaved very badly, I did find a certain sense of satisfaction in knowing that there had been a Stewart before me who had been a performer."

Despite coming from poor stock, Stewart recalls that there was never any resistance when he first voiced his dreams of becoming an actor.

"I was fortunate to grow up in the West Riding of Yorkshire, where it was never thought odd to be any kind of a performer," he explains.

"In my town, with a population then of 11,000 people, there were 12 fully active drama groups.

"Now, they might only have put on a pageant or a pantomime once a year, but nevertheless, people were performing, so you weren't thought to be peculiar if you got up on a stage and entertained.

"My mother was in amateur theatricals and my parents were happy that my older brother and I followed in her footsteps.

"My brother was actually a far better performer than me. He was better looking, had more talent, he had a better singing voice and if anybody should have become a professional it should have been my brother Trevor.

"But not many people we knew became professional actors. When I said that was what I wanted to do, my mother and father gave me all the support they could, as did my local authority because we were a poor family and my parents couldn't afford to send me to drama school. The local authority paid for everything."

That confidence in their son paid off and today, 51 years after Patrick Stewart first watched Waiting For Godot he is starring in the piece which is enjoying a sell-out tour.

"It was Sir Ian initially who was very enthusiastic about touring the production and I am so glad that he was and that we pushed it through, because we are halfway through our tour now and it is proving so satisfying.

"To be performing this extraordinary 20th century masterpiece around the country and bringing it to Edinburgh is going to be one of the highlights for us.

Waiting for Godot, King's Theatre, Leven Street, April 13-18, 7.30pm (Wednesday and Saturday matinees 2.30pm), SOLD OUT (returns only), 0131-529 6000

Engaging Patrick Stewart

PATRICK STEWART was born in Mirfield, Yorkshire, the son of Gladys, a weaver, and Alfred Stewart, a Regimental Sergeant Major in the British Army.

He attended Crowlees C of E Boys' School and Mirfield Secondary Modern School after which his first job was as a junior reporter at the Dewsbury Reporter.

With the help of a scholarship Stewart trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, leaving the drama school in 1959. Seven years later he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company where he remained for 16 years. In 1987 he landed the role that would change his life, Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Stewart has two children from his first marriage; Daniel Freedom Stewart, who is also an actor and Sophie Alexandra Falconer Stewart, a boutique owner. In 2000 he married his second wife, Wendy Neuss, a film and television producer.

 
 
 

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