Back in God's own county... Patrick Stewart, the movie star who discovered a divine new role

When Patrick Stewart is in a play, he can expect to take top billing.

He's Captain Picard of the USS Enterprise and Charles Xavier, the leader of the X-Men, for crying out loud. Who could possibly demand equal billing?

Well, Gandalf could.

When it was announced that Patrick Stewart would appear on stage with Sir Ian McKellen, we knew it would be theatrical dynamite.

When it emerged Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup were also in the cast and that the play was Beckett's influential Waiting for Godot, theatre fans were salivating.

When he saw it as a young man, the play had a huge impact on Stewart

"I saw it in a rep production when I was a student in Bristol and I was absolutely blown away by it. I'd never see anything so extraordinary. I was very lucky to see it with an unknown provincial rep actor, a 23-year-old called Peter O'Toole. I do quite clearly remember coming out of that theatre and determining if ever I managed to make a go of my a career as an actor, I wanted to do this play."

Stewart is aware that he and the rest of the cast are having a similar effect to the one he felt when watching O'Toole's performance.

"I have no doubt that the majority of the audience have never seen the play. I think it is probably inevitable that we are lighting a fire in those young audiences, I don't see how we can't be," says Stewart.

The Mirfield-born actor who became a major Hollywood star is coming back to Yorkshire, in spirit if not body, when he appears alongside a community cast at Monk Bretton Priory in Barnsley later this month in The English Mystery Plays.

Produced and directed by John Kelly for Barnsley-based Secret Theatre Company, the show features video footage and the voice of Stewart who plays God.

Despite huge success in his career, the Yorkshireman's heart has never strayed far from his roots. Which is how he became involved in what is ostensibly an amateur production with a community cast of more than 200.

Speaking between performances of Waiting for Godot, currently enjoying a sell-out run at London's Haymarket Theatre, he is clearly delighted to be taking part in the Mystery Plays, although he's not entirely sure how and when he agreed to take part.

"I have no idea, it was that long ago I can't remember. But I struggle to remember breakfast time," laughs the man who qualified for a bus pass some years ago.

After training at the Bristol Old Vic, Stewart was a jobbing actor for a number of years until Hollywood came knocking in 1987 and he was recruited to the Starship Enterprise. He was cast as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Riches and fame soon followed.

Even though he has travelled far from home, Stewart remains inextricably linked to the Broad Acres.

He says: "I feel very connected to the West Riding of Yorkshire. It played such an influential role in my childhood. It is where I grew up, it was my home.

"It was the place that introduced me to acting and encouraged me."

It was also the place that gave him the opportunity to start learning his craft. Stewart remembers vividly the moment he secured a place at drama school, but couldn't afford to go.

"We had no money and without a grant I was never going to go," he says."When I went to Wakefield Council for my interview for a grant, the panel of councillors on the grants committee were very tough, hard-headed West Riding businessmen. One of the questions they asked was what benefit could it possibly be for the West Riding of Yorkshire to give me money to go and study acting?

"So I said to them – I guess already a bit of a politician – that it would be my resolve that should I ever have any success, that I would never forget the West Riding and would try focus as much of my work as possible in the area.

"I kept my word because within less than a year of leaving drama school I had a full-time acting job at the old Sheffield Playhouse and spent nearly two years working in South Yorkshire.

"Then, six years ago, I was contemplating relocating back from California. Right at that moment, I was approached by John Tarrant, the then vice- chancellor of Huddersfield University, who took me to lunch and asked me if I were to be elected by the university council would I consider accepting the job.

"I told him instantly I would because instinctively it felt absolutely the proper thing. Being offered that role was quite significant in my final decision to burn my boats as far as Hollywood was concerned and

to return and to try to build a career in England.

"With my work for the university I feel I am fulfilling that rather instant if not shallow promise I made to those councillors over 50 years ago."

Growing up in Mirfield, Stewart, who insists on still referring to the "West Riding", first saw the Mystery Plays as a child.

He says: "I had always hoped as a kid growing up that I might one day be invited to perform in the cycle."

So appearing on the screen and through the speakers at the Priory is a long-held ambition fulfilled.

"To play the supreme deity is probably a bit of stretch – the nearest I've got before is playing kings and emperors. It's a nice addition to the CV."

The Mystery Plays come at the end of an extraordinary period of creativity for the actor. He lists the productions in which he has performed over the past three years: "Godot, Hamlet, Macbeth, Twelfth

Night, Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest. So I'm coming out of the best performing years of my career."

After all this work, does he think he deserves a break?

"Yes, I absolutely do," is his unequivocal answer. "For the first time in my life I am now beginning to plan my downtime as carefully and determinedly as I do my work. I have never done that before. If I had a few weeks or month when I wasn't working and I was offered something, I would squeeze it in. Not any more, I have had to acknowledge at 68 it is hard to keep up this pace. If I am to give 100 per cent all the time then I need to renovate myself."

With his downtime, Stewart, who waxes lyrical about Yorkshire, may spend more time at the home he owns in the"West Riding".

He also reveals that he is, sort of, a fan of going to the movies.

"Yesterday, I took my grandchildren to see the new Star Trek movie. There were three movie trailers, one for the new Terminator movie,

one for the new Harry Potter and one for a Pixar animated movie. All the trailers sounded and looked the same. Full of standardised levels of noise, violence and special effects and I thought, 'My God, nothing would attract me to any of these'.

"I love animated movies and I especially love Pixar but I weary of standardisation. I don't know what's happened... but I better not go on, you never know, they might want to cast me in one of them."

He might want to leave it there, but given he spent seven years playing Captain Picard, what did he think of the 21st-century version of Star Trek?

"I loved it. I absolutely loved it," he proclaims. "It was a very, very odd experience to be in the cinema watching a new Star Trek movie that I wasn't in. Not only that, but with the exception of Leonard Nimoy I didn't know any of the cast... but, it's Star Trek. They've taken some quite innovative decisions but it's absolutely essential, right down the middle Star Trek. I got a great kick out of it."

He also says of Chris Pine, the young actor playing Captain Kirk: "He's brilliant. He is charming, truthful, funny and utterly delightful."

The very words so often used to describe Stewart.

The English Mystery Plays are at Monk Bretton Priory from June 29 to July 11. Tickets are available from The Lamproom Theatre, Westgate, Barnsley, on 01226 321741 or www.

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