A Precarious Profession

‘I’m generally found still tapping in the wings before I make my entrance, more Rain Man than Birdman’

Theatre With Prejudice

Cressida Bonas in “An Evening With Lucien Freud” (photo: Wonderful Artful Theatre)

I’ve been musing on my profession. It’s a fine one and has been good to me. I’ve worked on stage, TV, film and radio for 48 years and 84 per cent of it has been joyful. The other day, no lesser sage than Quentin Letts called me “the veteran actress ML” and, for once, he was right. He was reviewing An Evening With Lucian Freud, a one-woman show starring Cressida Bonas and featuring a few “veterans” like me in pre-recorded cameos. Hence I was there on press night, in a theatre the size of a shipping container, where Quentin was penning his review about seven inches from Cressida’s delectable nose as she sat, whirled and alone held a curious audience for 65 minutes. She was nervous but convincing — just as I’ve been on every first night from newcomer to veteran.

“Dad,” the writer Bernard Slade asked his father, “when I’m a grown-up, can I be an actor?”

“No, son,” his Dad replied, “you can’t be both.”

I think of this Peter Pan quality as a kind of child-like sagacity. We like it when people respond well to us but we often have no real idea why. A famous story describes Sir Laurence Olivier exiting the stage after a stunning performance of Othello, to find the whole cast applauding him in the wings. Instead of revelling in the accolades of his peers, he crashed effing and blinding to his dressing room. “But sir,” said his dresser, “why are you so upset — you gave an incredible performance tonight.” “I know!” roared the knight, hurling his clothes to the floor, “but I don’t know what I did!”

I was blessed enough to come into the business with a full grant from Hull City Council and only five drama schools to choose from. On the coat-tails of Finney, Courtenay and Caine I emerged from Lamda with my northern vowels intact. Nowadays a working-class would-be actor needs a lottery win to train at one of hundreds of “performing arts centres” or take a media studies degree. And then they face probable unemployment. Where will the next Bob Hoskins come from, I wonder: Harrow or Eton?

Q&A audiences always ask, “How do you learn your lines?”, and “How do you do the same thing every night without getting bored?” Learning lines does get harder as one gets older. While making the documentary If Memory Serves Me Right, I had to memorise the names and birthdays of 25 strangers. I did this in the same way that I memorised Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian urn” for my O Levels: with a piece of paper over the bits I didn’t know. For 20 minutes I tested myself and was delighted by how much I’d retained. What I forgot was that I’d started running my bath before sitting down to learn. I remembered when my socks floated into the kitchen.

A brief “dry” or fluffing of lines can be ad-libbed away and if the audience sees you spinning on thin air for a second, they love it. Dropping into a complete black hole is another kettle of cod, and once this has happened to an actor, we are never quite as free on stage again. Saved from stage fright by a hypnotherapist, I now have a routine of tics,  taps and tongue-twisters without which I don’t step onstage. I start in the car on my way to the theatre and I continue long after I’ve put on my make-up. (Only in films like Birdman do actors have make-up artists at the side of the stage.) I’m generally to be found still tapping in the wings before I make my entrance, more Rain Man than Birdman.

As for the second question — it doesn’t get boring because the show is never the same. The audience is a different creature each night. It doesn’t react in the same way so neither do we, and the infinitesimal changes make each performance an exciting new page of the same book. I could tell you that Monday night audiences tend to be intelligent, cultured but careful. Saturday nights are full of people who think they should go to the theatre on a Saturday night. Matinée audiences may be hard of hearing but their concentration is deeper than the voice of Ivan Rebroff, the legendary Russian bass. Friday’s houses are slow to laugh. The best shows are after a matinée on Wednesdays or Thursdays, when the cast are running on adrenalin and still have to make it through the week.

There’s an increasing discrepancy between the commercial and subsidised theatres. The National and RSC get at least ten weeks of rehearsal and two weeks of previews to try out a show. In the commercial theatre, where money must be raised for each production, a new play gets three weeks of rehearsal, a week of previews and is judged by the same critics to the same exacting standards. I’ve seen plays that have garnered more stars than an American flag — and two stall seats and £120 later, my partner and I are staring at each other in total incomprehension.

As my late husband Jack Rosenthal used to say, “Hardly anyone knows the difference between a good play, good actors or good direction.” A cast can pull together a show from the confused ideas of a director, and a great director can coax a charismatic performance from a miscast star. A perfect play can be dismantled by a showy adaptation and a bad design can ruin three weeks of rehearsal bliss.

And as painful as it is to read one’s reviews, the harshest criticism comes from ourselves. The dancer and choreographer Martha Graham once ordered her colleague Agnes de Mille to stop judging her own work. “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique . . . It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

I try to remember this as I’m tapping my temples in the wings, and pass it on to any drama graduate I meet. Fledgling or veteran, it never gets easier, and the easier it looks, the better we’re doing it. Acting is 84 per cent sincerity, and the sooner you’ve learned to fake that, the better your chances of success.