The Show Must Go On31 October 2012
You can’t trust the stage. You can revel in it, experiment on it, be moved by it and bitch about it long into the night, but trust it? No deal.
Who can blame this old pal of ours? Its disloyalty to the expectations of absolutely everyone involved is actually what preserves it as a valuable medium, creating experiences that the cinema cannot necessarily produce. Things can go wrong, and will go wrong, but baby, being bad never felt so good!
In ‘Theatresports Down Under’ (an enthralling read) the author, Lyn Pierse, discusses the greatest improvisation she ever saw in what happened to be a production of Romeo and Juliet. In the final scene, the actor playing Romeo had forgotten to bring a dagger onstage with him so, after his poisoning, Juliet was suddenly left without a means of killing herself. Pierse describes how the actress began to run around the stage becoming increasingly distressed before pounding her head wildly on the altar where Romeo lay to finally ‘kill’ Juliet.
Of course, the majority such mishaps unravel far, far more unfortunately. In one Agatha Christie play, a sudden blackout was supposed to reveal the dead body of a character who had been happily walking about onstage moments before. Due to a technical problem, in one performance the lights remained on, leaving the actress with the issue of having to orchestrate her own death. Walking over to a doorway, she made it appear as if an unseen attacker was strangling her from offstage before falling to the floor, dead. Phew, crisis averted! Well, momentarily. When the maid entered to discover the deceased, instead of approaching the doorway from where the woman’s legs were clearly sticking out, she walked over to the empty space where the death usually happened and stood screaming at it.
In an interview, the late Richard Harris, a total and utter champion, divulged how he was once cast as the Doctor in a production of Macbeth where the leading actor was “so rude to me in the rehearsals, so rude you wouldn’t believe”. On opening night, in response to Macbeth’s question “How goes the Queen?”, instead of providing the vital news that “the Queen my lord, is dead!”, triggering one of the play’s most important soliloquys and propelling the final events of Act Five, Richard Harris simply replied, “She’s fine”. This guy has been nominated for Academy Awards, won a Golden Globe and has a filmography spanning some 79 credits but judging from the fervour with which he told this revengeful tale, complete with a full enactment, his intentional onstage fuck-up was probably one of his proudest achievements.
Elsewhere, throughout her lengthy career Judi Dench has fallen over onstage during live performances in all but two of the plays she’s done. And the run of Daniel Day-Lewis’s production of Hamlet was cut short after he collapsed in a crying heap onstage convinced that he had been talking to the ghost of his own dead father. Mind you, he only does a film once every five years, wins an Oscar for it, and then lives reclusively in the mountains of Ireland to recover from the emotional intensity of his preparation.
I find that when things go supremely shit onstage, it actually can produce some of the most truthful and memorable performances. But let’s be honest, these infamous tales of mishaps, backstabbing and all round cringe-worthy incidents nestled deep within theatre folklore, no matter how horrendous, actually bring (well, have brought me) a kind of sick voyeuristic joy when retelling.