Pete Postlethwaite, An Honorary Irishman
Lee Henry remembers watching one of the greatest actors of his generation on stage and screen
I have always considered the late Pete Postlethwaite to be an honorary Irishman. Ever since watching him play Gerry Conlon’s father Giuseppe in Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father (1993), I naively thought that Postlethwaite was, in fact, Irish.
I am not the only person to have asked, on hearing of his passing: ‘Where was he actually from?’ It is a testament to the man’s chameleon-like character acting capabilities that many of my generation were surprised to learn that he was, in fact, a Lancashire man, born and bred.
Giuseppe Conlon was a role for which Postlethwaite received an Oscar nomination, and is perhaps the performance that Postlethwaite will be remembered for most clearly. He was only 11 years older than his co-star, Daniel Day-Lewis, but he left us in no doubt that here was a man much older and wiser – a Belfast man, burdened by the weight of injustice.
I first saw Postlethwaite in the flesh in 1996, three years after the release of In the Name of the Father, when he graced the stage at Belfast’s Grand Opera House as Macbeth. The cast was littered with familiar faces that day, but none as recognisable as Postlethwaite's, and of course he stole the show.
I remember his Macbeth as being predictably conflicted, but unexpectedly sympathetic. Postlethwaite later told The Independent: ‘Even with these extraordinary villains, more often than not Shakespeare will give you a little window that just goes right down, and you see the incredibly human soul of the man inside. Macbeth wasn't a villain: he was just swept along on this tide of ambition and it took him far beyond where he imagined he could go.’
Years later, whilst at university in Manchester, I was lucky enough to see Postlethwaite act in the round, at the Royal Exchange Theatre – a majestic, transparent orb inside the old Cotton Exchange building, where the action takes place just feet away from the audience. That day Postlethwaite was Max, a 70-year old retired butcher in Harold Pinter’s absurdist play The Homecoming.
I was so moved by Postlethwaite's performance as the prickly, devious Max that I tacked the flier of the show to my bedroom wall - over the next couple of years Postlethwaite, in close up, stared on as I struggled to plot a creative writing dissertation and provided inspiration when the ideas threatened to dry up completely.
There are other of Postlethwaite's roles that will forever strike a chord with me: the enigmatic crime emissary Kobayashi in Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects and Father Lawrence, the alchemist with a heart in Baz Luhrmann’s epic Romeo + Juliet, to name but two.
Pete Postlethwaite was one of those actors who could play any role, connect with any audience member, bring any script to life. But he was also a courageous political activist and environmental campaigner, who famously arrived for the London premiere of The Age of Stupid - an innovative film about climate change - on a bicycle.
Postlethwaite's final film was the Nick Hamm feature Killing Bono, which was filmed in Belfast and is due for release in April 2011, providing Northern Ireland with one last link to one of the greatest actors of his generation.
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