Monologue #4: AN ACTOR PREPARES
written by Terrance Marshman-Edwards
AN ACTOR PREPARES
I was forty-one when I realised I would never play the Dane.
I was at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester in a production of As You Like It. I was playing Jaques, he of the famous 'seven ages of man' speech. I was in the dressing room, getting ready to have my make-up done, and I noticed the nascent wrinkles in my forehead and the emerging crow's feet around my eyes.
Then it struck me: I’d never give my Hamlet.
“O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!”
It was an epiphany, albeit an unwelcome one. That was it. The moment had passed.
Too bad, old boy; you’re past it.
My old acting teacher once told me he thought there was a holy trinity of Shakespearean male roles: Romeo, Hamlet and Lear. It’s one of Shakespeare’s cruellest tricks that, by the time you're emotionally mature enough to play Romeo and Hamlet, more often than not, you're physically past it. Unless you're some prodigy, it's not possible. Well, I never found it possible.
I wasn’t particularly happy about the idea of being too old to play the role, but I wasn’t bothered I’d never given the world my Hamlet. I could never see how I’d play it differently. Anyway, you’ll never improve on Laurence Olivier’s performance. Such grace and nuance. He speaks the verse like he’s thinking it.
There are a couple of members of this company that could take a page out of Olivier’s book. You can see them saying the words, but you know they haven’t got a clue what they actually mean.
Mind you, for some of them, this is the first job out of drama school. Just at the very starts of their careers. And then you’ve got an old codger like me, at the end of his.
It’s time to bring the curtain down. I’ve been at this for nearly fifty years. Long enough. All this to-ing and fro-ing, it’s a young man’s game.
At least in this theatre, I’ve got my own dressing room. We’ve not been so lucky in some other venues. It’s just been one long room and everyone in together. Apart from the actresses, of course. They’ve had their own room, as they should. I don’t like this communal room thing; puts me in mind of the P.E. changing rooms back in school.
It also doesn’t help that our Ferdinand has an off-putting habit of strutting around in just his underwear. He may be 24 and have a rugby player’s physique but we don’t all need to see it. That said, the actor playing Antonio doesn’t seem to mind- his eyes were out on stalks.
Lovely bunch of flowers from Claudia waiting for me when I arrived this afternoon. Witty little card: ‘Sorry I can’t be there tonight, darling. I’m being held hostage at gunpoint. Break a leg and I’ll see you Monday. All my love, C.’
That show she’s in doesn’t half put her into some strange situations. When I was starting this run, she phoned me all excited: ‘Darling, you’ll never guess what they’ve got me doing. I have to talk someone out of jumping in front of a train. We’re actually filming in Grand Central Station!’
She’s wasted in that bloody silly show. An actress of her calibre, slumming it in a ridiculous American courtroom drama. A woman whose Hedda Gabler could have brought tears to a glass eye now playing an alcoholic judge. She thought it’d only run a year or two. Twelve years later and she’s still doing it.
I remember C. coming back to our flat in Hampstead the night she was offered the job. She’d finished the tour of Amy’s View and her agent had brought this producer backstage to meet her. Long story short, they wanted her for the pilot episode of this show. She didn’t have anything in the pipeline, so she agreed.
As she said: ‘if it’s a success, that’ll be marvellous. If it’s not, well, I’ve dipped my toe in American TV and had a lovely trip to New York too.’
And it was a hit. She was a hit.
She came back after filming the first season and I took her for dinner. I could tell there was something she didn’t want to discuss. She was withdrawn. I put it down to jetlag. Then she came out with it.
‘I had a chat with the producers after we wrapped. They gave me “the talk of doom”. I should expect life to go into overdrive. People will want to know all about me, what I wear, where I go. My private life. All for public consumption. That means you too, Hugo. It happens to you by proxy. I know what a private person you are. You wouldn’t want your life open to such scrutiny.’
She’s right there. I like being able to pop to Tesco to pick up a pint of milk without being mobbed. The most I get is an occasional quizzical look, as if to say, ‘I’m sure I recognise you from somewhere’.
‘I would never subject you to that,’ she said. ‘But I don’t know what the answer is.’
‘I do,’ I said. ‘A quickie divorce here before you need to go back to the States and the American press shouldn’t be any the wiser. I’d like to keep my anonymity, love. You know I want nothing but the best for you, even if that means not being married to you.’
And so it was done.
We keep in touch, e-mail, call when we can. When she’s on hiatus, she’ll sometimes come back to London and we meet up for a day or two, so long as I’m not in some far-flung corner of the country.
She’s the only woman I’ve ever truly loved.
We met when we were in Twelfth Night. She was Olivia, I was Malvolio. She introduced herself to me in the first rehearsal by saying ‘Oh, so you’re going to fall in love with me.’ And I did, both on stage and off it.
“Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness,
and some have greatness thrust upon 'em”
I am a better man for having her in my life. And a better actor too. Working opposite her is superb- she really makes you think, makes you better by you wanting to be at her level. We often joked about doing a limited run of Antony And Cleopatra together but that never materialised. It won’t now.
Once we get to fifteen minutes, I’ll start to get ready. Make-up’s already been done. It’s minimal, which is good, but the robes are quite heavy, so I don’t put them on until I absolutely have to.
I do wish I'd gone out playing Lear. Probably the only professional regret I have. Lear was my pinnacle, my Everest. That was the one I wanted.
“You think I'll weep? No, I'll not weep:
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I'll weep.”
Two years ago, I did a production where I played Kent and understudied the lead. Not once was I called on to take the role. Our illustrious star remained in the rudest of health for the entire run. Inconsiderate swine. I briefly considered knocking him down the back stairs of the theatre one night. I could have so easily passed it off as an accident… but I didn’t do it. It did provide me with a nice mental image though.
Still, playing Prospero’s not a bad way to bow out.
I’ve never really considered what life post-acting will be like. Quieter, no doubt. I won’t be having the regular calls with Dougie, my agent, for starters. Bless him, he keeps- well, kept- trying to get me out of my 'comfort zone'.
When I was out of work a few years ago, he sent me a script from this young playwright. All about how some bloke had slept with another man’s wife.
Well, you wouldn't give it credence. Low, vulgar subject matter, paper-thin characters with their minds in the gutter, and chockful of effing and blinding. I sent it back with a refusal and a request: never send me filth like that again.
Well then, a week or so after that, he calls me up and says 'there's a role going in Doctor Who that you'd be perfect for! Can you go down to Cardiff to meet with the casting director?'
'Not on your life,' I said. 'What do I want to do some cheap tacky sci-fi show for?'
I remember seeing some of it back in the 1970s. Looked like it had been made on tuppence ha'penny an episode and, as good an actor as Jon Pertwee was, even he couldn’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
'It's not all wobbly sets and bubble-wrap these days, love. All done by computer now. Amazing stuff. Big names are doing it these days too. McKellen's done one. And Jacobi. Michael Gambon too.'
'Well, bully for them,' I said. 'I'm having none of it. I'm a legitimate character actor.'
‘Think about your profile.'
'Profile? Dougie, I'm on my last legs, professionally speaking. What do I want to "think about my profile" for? I haven't got one to think about.'
After a pause, he said 'I'll tell them you're busy.'
I heard they ended up casting David Suchet in the role. Well, since they finished the Poirots, I’d imagine he’s been at a bit of a loose end.
Comfort zone, I ask you. Nothing wrong with finding your niche in life. I found mine; not everyone else is as blessed. And I know acting doesn’t begin and end with Shakespeare. I’ve done other stuff. Marlowe. Ibsen. Pinter once or twice. I’d have done that Beckett if I’d have been sure I could remember the bloody lines.
If I could continue, I would. But I can’t.
It’s true that all the travelling has started to take its toll. But the bigger problem is my eyesight. It’s fading. Quicker than I expected.
Macular degeneration, the doctor said. It’s making reading very difficult. As a pre-show warm up, I always used to do the Guardian crossword. I can just about see it now but there’s a blot right in the centre of my vision. Makes filling things in very difficult.
I was upfront with the producers that I was having vision issues- at the start of the run, things weren’t too bad, the damage was quite peripheral- but if I went into a new show with my eyesight as bad as this, the insurance would be astronomical. Producers wouldn’t take the risk.
So it’s time to call it a day.
(An alarm sounds)
Right, on with the motley and away we go…
“You do look, my son, in a movéd sort,
As if you were dismayed. Be cheerful, sir,
Our revels now are ended…”