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Passionate Pete Checks Out

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The death of Pete Postlethwaite just about put the tin lid on the holiday season. No more celebrations in order, except sad ones. Not many actors could tap as directly into your emotions as could Pete, and I’ve had hairs standing up on the back of my neck just thinking about his Coriolanus at the Liverpool Everyman, his politically incensed band leader in that wonderful movie Brassed Off, his astonished Bottom in an RSC Dream, his sleazy talent agent in the first Little Voice on stage, and his lion-hearted, deeply touching, heart-breaking and delightfully skittish King Lear at the Young Vic (sorry, Jacobi fans, this was the business).

He was part of a great cast in Alan Bennett’s A Private Function, now being transformed into Betty Blue Eyes, the musical; he was an amorous butcher who fondled the buttocks of his beloved “war widow” as if they belonged to his real pride and joy, the piggy carcass on his shop slab.

That sweaty fleshiness was his stock-in-trade, along with the hint of gleaming madness about him, and his unchangeable, colourful Lancashire vowel system. For the first ten years of his career he was “Peter” Postlethwaite. I always hoped that, one day, he’d continue the abbreviation and become “Pet.”

One evening before a Donmar Warehouse production just over two years ago, I slipped into a Neal Street Indian restaurant for a quick pre-show supper. To my astonishment, there was Pete, tucking into a curry and a pint after a hard day’s rehearsal, at a single table right next to Benedict Nightingale. They weren’t talking to each other.

The only available table was the other side of him, so I sat down and instigated a fairly merry conversational three-way over the popadoms. We must have looked like the three wise monkeys on furlow. Pete said the rehearsals for King Lear with Rupert Goold were lively and challenging.

Just how lively and challenging was revealed when the show opened on an unweeded football terrace, Goneril being pregnant before the sterility curse, Forbes Masson’s Fool “singin’ in the rain” and the ironic evocation of Mrs Thatcher’s St Francis of Assisi prayer when she took office in 1979: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony…”

Only the latter of those "excesses" was ironed out by the time the show arrived at the Young Vic, where it literally went down a storm with the young audience, just as that Coriolanus had done years ago in Liverpool.

I've been thinking a lot about this over the past 24 hours since the news broke, and the clamour of affectionate reminiscence in today's newspapers confirms what everyone who ever saw him on stage already knew: Postlethwaite was an actor you simply fell in love with at first sight. He was transparent, unaffected, honest, deeply humane, and he came at you without conditions or caveats. He was a complete one-off and, for that reason alone, completely irreplaceable.

The other thing about his King Lear was its innovative structuring. Goold had made some textual cuts that were peculiar, but he re-juggled scenes and made two intervals, creating a powerful triptych effect: Unhappy Families, Cruelty and Homelessness, Death and Destruction. Postlethwaite thrived in this new ordering and posted one of the truly great post-War Lears, certainly one right up there with those of Paul Scofield and John Wood, both of whom were much more circumspect in their disintegration.

Cheers, Pete. If I weren't on the New Year's wagon, I'd go right out and sink a couple of pints of Guinness in your honour. At least the peril of trying to keep up with you would no longer apply, alas. 


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