THE sell-out success of a star-studded production of Waiting for Godot, which closes its Edinburgh run today should encourage more first-run shows to launch outside London with top casts, actor Patrick Stewart said yesterday.
Theatres in British cities, including Edinburgh and Glasgow, routinely take their cue from London, relying on second-run touring productions of big musicals or plays that have been London hits to fill their seats.
But Godot, with the stellar cast of Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen – stars of Star Trek and Lord of the Rings – Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup, has turned the tables. It will have toured 60 performances from Bath to Edinburgh before opening at London's Theatre Royal, Haymarket on 6 May.
In an exclusive interview with The Scotsman, Stewart said cities such as Edinburgh should come first more often. "Certainly you should. Certainly a city like Edinburgh should, and I don't know why it doesn't happen more often," he said.
"Ian and I have often commented that our first experiences of the best of British theatre were seen in touring houses, he in Manchester and myself in Leeds or Bradford, wherever I could get to. We always saw the first-team cast."
Godot has been the talk of Edinburgh this week, with long queues nightly for return tickets at the King's Theatre to see Stewart as Vladimir and McKellen as Estragon in Samuel Beckett's now classic 1949 play.
Stewart also cited the case of Calendar Girls. The stage version of the story which became a hit film, about a group of local women who pose nude for charity, it opened at the Chichester Festival Theatre last year and toured the UK before its London run began this month.
"I understand that Calendar Girls has just gone into town after a very successful regional run. Perhaps that and Waiting for Godot will encourage actors and producers to do what we have done. Everybody is going to benefit."
The Scotsman's theatre critic Joyce McMillan gave Godot a rare five-star rating this week, in what Stewart said was the first national review of the production.
But it was hard to see Godot setting a precedent, she commented. "It is a deluxe phenomenon because of the calibre of the actors, which is almost unrepeatable," she said. "It's such a unique project, such a major play, such a wonderful cast, such a combination of pulling power.
"If you have a cast like that you can do anything you like. But in order to sell a show in the provinces you often need the London reviews to project it. Unless you have got a large number of stars it's not easy to sell."
But David Williams, a freelance theatre manager and former chief executive of the King's Theatre in Glasgow, praised Stewart, McKellen and actors like Nigel Havers for taking shows on tour. He said there was "totally, totally more room" for productions like Godot.
"The perennial issue is always getting actors out of London," he said. "There are a whole host that will not go out of town for more than a handful of weeks. They won't commit to a long tour a year in advance just in case they get something that is perceived to be better.
"Regional touring is perceived to be not as good as a London date or a film or TV or whatever, and that's a shame. May be that's just the economic reality."
The chief executive of the Pitlochry Festival Theatre, John Durnin, said Stewart's stance was "bang to rights". "What he and McKellen are doing with Godot is absolutely fantastic," he said. "It doesn't make the mistake that the London audience is the only one that matters."
Stewart credited McKellen, his co-star in the X-Men films, as the driving force behind the tour.
"He was the one who said 'I want to take this out and take it around, before we go to London, let's make it a national show," he said. "He was very, very enthusiastic about that and got me fired up about it as well. It has been a terrific experience for us.
"It has been the satisfaction that people have felt that they are getting a show of this kind, with these people, before London has seen it. We're coming to them. Being an actor from the regions, and having been brought up in the provinces, that's something I well understand."
Stewart came to Edinburgh "decades ago" with the RSC, he said. However while he celebrates 50 years as an actor this year he has never performed in the Edinburgh festivals.
Scots artist who caught Patrick's eye
ACTOR Patrick Stewart took time out from a "marvellous" run in Edinburgh this week to visit an exhibition at the Leith Gallery featuring Frank To, a young Scottish artist whose work he collects.
Stewart has been buying art for 20 years, he said, including five works by To.
"This is my private passion. I like to have pictures around me, I have two homes and I've run out of wallspace."
The two men first met at Huddersfield University, where Stewart is chancellor. Falkirk-born To, 26, was a student there before returning to Scotland to do his masters at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee.
He has since shown work alongside Peter Howson and Damien Hirst.
"I think he's very gifted, and I'm delighted he's beginning to get an international audience," Stewart said. "He's adventurous and bold, and not afraid of a big canvas."
To's portrait of the actor is on sale as part of the show, for 1,700, the last of three he completed.