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An Evening with Patrick Stewart

Leeds, July 2001

On Friday 6th July 2001 I went to see Patrick Stewart present his one man show 'Shylock : Shakespeare's Alien' at the West Yorkshire Playhouse (WYP) , Leeds, England.

The following text is written with Stewart fans in mind but I've also attempted to give an idea of the content of his presentation. Copyright 2001 Catherine Ellis

In the lobby of the Playhouse there are several pictures of Patrick. One is a black and white half face shot taken around 1990. In this he looks as he did in the Star Trek TV series. Next to this is a group of colour photographs, probably taken during this production. They are quite shocking. What you see is hair, masses of white hair - not something we associate with Mr Stewart. These face-only shots were taken from an angle that emphasises the white beard he is now sporting. I found them quite disturbing, they didn't seem at all like the person I'd seen in RSC stage productions, on TV or in films.

I needn't have worried the man who walked onto the stage looked nothing like those photographs. Yes, the white beard is there, but it's hardly noticeable when you can see the whole of him. He appears fit and his figure is lean. He walks around the stage like an athlete gently warming up so you are aware he could handle some vigorous physical exercise if necessary.

The performance was being held in the Courtyard Theatre at the WYP. This stage has a conventional presidium arch. It holds about 350 people, mainly in a central block of 14 rows of 18 seats. That night all but about 20 seats were taken. The audience was a mixture of ages from about 20 to 85. My impression was that the youngsters had come specifically to see Patrick while the older contingent consisted of local people who regularly attend the WYP whatever is on. I'd spent the day walking around Leeds (I'm a Londoner) and had been struck by how many fit elderly people there were. I saw lots of white heads with alert eyes on wiry bodies. Mr Stewart grew up in this area and by local standards his fitness at 61 is not exceptional. ("All southerners are soft" is a jibe that comes up during the evening.)

The stage was all black and bare except for a lectern on one side and a chair on the other. The performance starts with him walking quickly to the front of the stage and saying, "Good evening, I'm Patrick Stewart." The first part lasts 1hr 30mins and consists of Patrick explaining and demonstrating ways of interpreting the part of Shylock. He also discusses the moral dilemmas involved in staging an Anti-Semitic play. The main impressions I got from the evening were - how well he can use his voice, how he likes to move and how intelligently he can speak about plays and acting.

This performance/event will be different every night. We've heard Patrick say that each performance of a play is different but with this material there is even greater possibility for variation. For one thing he's not working from a fixed script. I think he has a crib sheet on the lectern to remind him of the main points he wants to make but within that constraint the wording, the digressions and the adlibs will alter. I know some of the apparent adlibs will have been rehearsed but some referred to things that had happened that day so they were clearly new. The make up of the audience must influence the evenings greatly. I've read a description of an earlier Leeds performance that contained a boisterous talkative Star Trek fan element. That evening seemed nothing like the one I experienced. The weather and political events will also have had an effect. For the two previous weeks most of Britain had been experiencing unusually hot sunny days (27c or more) and uncomfortably humid nights. Such conditions affect people's tempers and probably helped fuel a number of violent racially charged confrontations that have been taking place in some northern English cities, including Leeds. You can't discuss this 400-year-old play about racial and religious intolerance without realising it still has relevance for what is happening outside the theatre door. Mr Stewart made this point himself.

Because he's rephrasing the material every night there were a few short pauses after digressions while he reminded himself of the main thread he wanted to follow. The major pause in the evening happened after about 15 minutes when he suddenly said, "Don't do that!" in a commanding tone. He'd spotted someone in the front row using a small video camera. The transgressor didn't argue the point and there followed a few seconds silence while Patrick watched him put the camera away. After this he continued but then decided to explain to the audience why he didn't want cameras. This was live theatre, every night was different, either you were here one night or your weren't. It wasn't designed to be captured on video. He got a round of applause from the audience for that and immediately got going again. For a few minutes I thought the incident might have disturbed his flow, but he's a professional and got over it quickly.

During the 'talk' part of the performance Patrick uses his actor's voice and body techniques - speed, emphasis, volume - to help make the meaning intelligible and to keep the audience's attention. He knows how to make you laugh by various means like surprise, wordplay or by telling self-effacing anecdotes. In fact 'talk' is the wrong word to describe it, it's an 'act' written and performed by Patrick that's designed to convey ideas. When speaking about Shylock's scenes he pointed out that the man could be interpreted as 'putting on an act' in all of them, except for the one when he's alone with his daughter.

Watching him on the stage you can see he likes to move. This isn't distracting, it comes across as a natural part of his delivery, complementing what he's doing with his voice. I can understand now why he said it was difficult to get into the Xavier (X-men) part where he could hardly move at all. The Star Trek uniforms must also have been very restraining as the actors could barely raise their arms in those things. Tugging at Picard's jacket would have been a welcome physical outlet, a way of expressing the character's emotions through movement. On this evening in Leeds he was wearing a dark grey suit, white shirt and a dark tie, though he didn't put the jacket on until he started performing some of Shylock's speeches. At this point he rolled down the shirtsleeves, did up the top button, wrapped a yellow cummerbund type cloth around his middle and put the jacket on. This can't have been all for visual effect. Though he didn't explain why he bothered to alter his clothing my guess is that he likes to use the more restrictive costume to help him to get into the part, to move as Shylock would rather than Stewart.

His stage performance differs from that on TV or film for the obvious reason that there are no close-ups. There's no eye contact and only the broadest of facial expressions is visible. Communications has got to be done through the voice, body movement and the words. My one disappointment with the evening was how infrequently Patrick looked up beyond the 6th row. From where I was in the 13th, I sometimes felt like an observer of a conversation he was having with the front rows. As we were all sitting in the dark maybe he couldn't see us in the back section.

During the evening he illustrated how you could dissect Shylock's lines and put them together as a believable whole. There's more than one way of playing the part and, as Patrick pointed out, the particular interpretation he illustrated was the one he felt comfortable acting. It could be summarised as presenting Shylock as a proud, witty and urbane man driven to violence by despair over the desertion of his daughter to a Christian lover and by the mocking intolerance of others. Not every actor can talk intelligently about plays and acting, Patrick can. It's a pity so few interviewers know how to ask him sensible questions on the subject.

The second part of the entertainment lasts about 30 minutes; during this Patrick is joined each night by a different writer, academic or critic who puts forward some of their own ideas and asks a few questions. The pair of them sit on easy chairs on either side of a low table. Patrick had changed all his clothing for this section; the suit and black shoes were replaced the familiar T-shirt and casual trousers. I can't work out whether he likes the freedom of movement this apparel gives him, whether he feels less bald when we can see other areas of skin or whether it's simply a matter of being cooler under the lights. Anyway, since he can't move around much when seated he resorts to stroking his beard or his hair - he does have some - while thinking. (You can identify people who've been married recently, their shiny wedding rings still catch the light, life dulls them after a few years.) I 'd guess the beard is for his part in the JB Priestley's play Johnson Over Jordon which starts at the WYP in August.

I felt sorry for his female writer companion, she was obviously nervous about sitting on a stage and couldn't stop circling her left arm as she spoke. Patrick should have rescued her by grabbing her arm and holding it still! This section of the performance was being filmed every night by the WYP. The cameraman told me they planned to put together a compilation tape, parts of which might be put on the WYP website.

There was only time for three or four questions from the audience at the end, none of them about Star Trek. In fact Patrick was the only one who mentioned the series and that was at the beginning of the first section. The evening helped me understand why he was able to do such a great job in Star Trek, it was because he continually tried to get as much from those TV scripts as he would from one of Shakespeare's plays.

Some of the personal points he mentioned included: that he'd like to act in a comedy, he's had enough of suffering for a while. An actor friend of his had been teasing him that maybe he could stop playing Scrooge in a Christmas Carol when he's got rid of the Scrooge like aspects of his own character. After so many years of financial insecurity it took him a while to accept that his situation had changed. As he put it "He'd been in denial about what he was now earning." What was so funny about this was that, this Friday evening, he still couldn't bring himself to say a word that meant 'wealthy'.

In retrospect I think the "Don't do that" incident altered the tone of the evening. It changed the relationship between Patrick and audience and put him very firmly in control. I for one felt slightly nervous about asking a question in case it was considered impertinent. I'm not such a blinkered fan that I think everything he does is marvellous. This, however, was an interesting, thought provoking and enjoyable evening; well worth the time and expense of travelling from London. I'm looking forward to seeing the Priestley play in September.

I know I have not done justice to the content of his talk. If you can't get to see a performance but are interested in the subject then I suggest getting hold of the book 'Playing Shakespeare' by John Barton. This publication is the transcript of a series of television programs shown in Britain in 1980 in which the director, Barton, and a number of RSC actors including Patrick, Ian McKellen, David Suchet, Judi Dench and others talked about and demonstrated various ways of performing Shakespeare. Some of Patrick's 1980 thoughts about Shylock are still the same but as he pointed out to us his ideas have moved on. The Shylock we saw this July was not the one he created back in 1978. (The year he acted the part on stage.)

If you enjoyed this report please let me know : E-mail me

Catherine Ellis,   July 7th 2001

If you enjoyed this report please let me know : E-mail me

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