IN COMMAND: Patrick Stewart Takes Charge

Most Americans know Patrick Stewart as a television icon: the bald, authoritative, elegantly accented Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise on Star Trek: The Next Generation, which aired from 1987 to 1994. For New York theatergoers, then, it was a revelation to see him onstage in Central Park in the summer of 1995 playing the charismatic magician Prospero in The Tempest. In George C. Wolfeís smart, radical production of Shakespeareís play, Stewart gave us a Prospero who was not exactly the hero of the play but a bitter, slave-owning colonizer who wielded his powers only to dominate others -- a sharp variation on the conventional interpretation of a wise, beleaguered leader seeking restoration of his rightful throne.

Now Stewart is giving New Yorkers an opportunity to reconsider a contemporary classic play, Harold Pinterís The Caretaker. Under the direction of David Jones, Stewart plays Davies, a homeless wretch who is taken in from the cold and the rain by two brothers, mentally unstable Aston (Kyle McLachlan) and suavely sinister Mick (Aiden Gillen). Although some might see Davies as a pawn cruelly manipulated by the two brothers, Stewart sees him as having control of the play -- an intriguing perspective I learned when I reached him on his cell phone in London. The interview, which began moments after Stewart stepped out of a screening room, continued in a taxicab, and concluded in his hotel room, took place a few days before rehearsals for The Caretaker began.

Front & Center: Many New Yorkers first saw you playing Prospero in The Tempest, but in fact youíve had a long and illustrious career as a stage actor in England. Would you talk me through the high spots of your life in the theater?

Oh, my. I became an actor to work on the stage. It was never part of my game plan to work in film or television. In fact, I think Iíd been an actor for probably 15 years before I appeared in front of any camera. I suppose the first truly significant experience for me was after Iíd been working in provincial rep for six years. I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1966 and a year later became an associate artist with the company under the direction of Peter Hall and later Trevor Nunn. I spent 10 or 12 consecutive years working with the company. At that time it was a true ensemble. Actors had the opportunity to work their way up through the ranks to leading roles, and there were many memorable experiences for me in that.

Such as?

The Roman season Trevor Nunn directed, which consisted of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Titus Andronicus. I had roles in all those plays. Later I was to play Shylock for John Barton in a very successful production of The Merchant of Venice, Leontes in Winterís Tale, and the title role in Trevor Nunnís production of both parts of Henry IV, which were the opening productions at the Barbican Theater [former RSC headquarters in London] in 1983. Since the king has the first lines of Henry IV Part I, I was the first actor to speak lines on the Barbican stage.

After that, playing the leading role in Peter Shafferís play Yonadab at the Royal National Theater in 1986. And a new production of Whoís Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Young Vic, which won numerous Fringe awards that year. That was the last piece of theater I did before being cast in Star Trek: The Next Generation and relocating to California. During my time there, purely as a way of keeping my stage muscles exercised I created a one-man show of Charles Dickensís A Christmas Carol, which Iíve done on Broadway four times and also in London at the Old Vic. Since then, you mentioned The Tempest. That was certainly the Shakespeare highlight of the last dozen years for me, a brilliant production by George C. Wolfe, first at the Delacorte and then on Broadway at the Broadhurst.

After that, I played Othello at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C., which became known as the photonegative Othello because it featured a white Othello in a cast of African-Americans. I was very fortunate to play George in Whoís Afraid of Virginia Woolf? again, in a revival at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis with Mercedes Ruehl as Martha, directed by David Esbjornson, which was an outstanding experience. After that, playing the New York and Broadway premieres of Arthur Millerís A Ride Down Mt. Morgan, which started at the Public Theater and moved to Broadway. This summer I completed a run of Ibsenís The Master Builder in the West End, which just closed a month ago. That brings us up to the present. 

I notice that you didnít mention Peter Brookís production of A Midsummer Nightís Dream, in which you made your Broadway debut playing one of the Rude Mechanicals.

How can I overlook Peter Brookís Dream? I did make my debut in what is thought of as a legendary, benchmark production of a great play. It was for me the second time Iíd worked with Peter Brook. It was quite memorable, that 1970 Broadway season. We also transferred it across the East River and played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a month too.

You did The Caretaker before, in 1963 as Aston. What is it like to come back to the play now, as Davies?

The Caretaker is one of the great plays of the mid-20th century. I was lucky enough to see the original production in the West End with Donald Pleasance in the role of Davies. I appeared in it two years later in a regional theater production at the Manchester Library Theatre playing Aston. I remember thinking Aston is a wonderful role, but what an extraordinary part Davies was. Heís never offstage, and his complexity and sort of control of the play is something I remember envying. I envied it then. It now looks like quite a challenge, just a few days before we begin rehearsal.

Davies has control of the play?

Although Aston and Mick have terrific strengths in the play, in contrasting ways, the determination of Davies to hold onto what he has got and protect himself and to survive, which is his primary motivation, makes him the engine room of the play. And thatís something that over the years Iíve always found fascinating because you hold the reins of the play in your hands. 

What can you tell us about Pinterís play from the inside? How is it to speak that strange, frightening language? 

In preparation for this production, Iíve been doing something I donít usually do, in fact that I deliberately avoid -- speaking the role out loud to myself. Iíve found that to be of real value here because it is in the broadest sense poetic language. And Iíve been finding the conduit to Davies through his language, which is what you would do with Shakespeare or Marlowe. The language is written with such a distinctive rhythm and the vocabulary of the role is so precise and exact. You canít approximate this. Itís not a role that I would ever feel comfortable paraphrasing for a moment. It must be rigorously exact. I understand this is something Harold Pinter demands, understandably. So the characters very strongly emerge through the language that they speak, and the rhythms within that language is different within each of the three characters. I hope one of the fascinations of playing this character will be to experience the dynamics within these characters and how they interact.

There is, of course, within this play and many of Pinterís plays of this period a very strong underlying sense of threat, even something that approaches malevolence at times. A feeling that dangerous and unpleasant things are at any moment likely to explode in the play. This is also marked by the language. As I said, I canít remember another occasion when speaking the lines out loud has been so valuable for me. It did lead me to frightening the pigeons in Hyde Park yesterday afternoon when I took myself to sit by the round pond to learn act one.

You mentioned working on your adaptation of Dickens to keep your stage muscles exercised while working in film and TV. What muscles, literally and figuratively, do you use differently in each medium?

This is a very personal point of view, but Iíve always felt that a lot of film acting happens in the mind. The camera photographs thoughts. Obviously thereís action and language too, but the kind of film acting that Iíve always enjoyed is that in which charactersí thought processes become vivid in front of a camera. In theater, of course, the close-up doesnít exist. So the whole body is utilized in a dramatic way to communicate character and intention and objective. So itís been always for me almost a sensual pleasure to move back and forth between mediums. I started this year acting in and producing a new film of The Lion in Winter, with James Goldmanís original screenplay that Katharine Hepburn and Peter OíToole appeared in. I was lucky enough to do it with Glenn Close. We did it in Budapest, with huge emotions and the interior duologue scenes had an epic scale to it.

From that, to enter into the dark, internal, complex, repressed atmosphere of Ibsen and late 19th century drama was a startling contrast. And now the verbal brilliance of this play, which in a sense is emotionally less open than either The Master Builder or The Lion in Winter but has a dynamic which is just as intense. So itís been a rich year.

Front & Center (The Magazine of Roundabout Theatre Company), Fall 2003