An actor writes . . .
The Provoked Wife Southwark Playhouse Hobson's Choice Young Vic and touring
Iwas an actor once. The general view within the profession was that I brought something extraordinary to the stage. Some called it 'danger', others 'darkness'. I ruined classics. I ended runs. I stopped tours. I closed theatres. The sight of me strolling on from the wings could bring a drama festival to a halt, Complex techniques didn't trouble me, it was the straightforward that had me tied in knots. My hardest challenge was to stand on stage, entirely unoccupied while staying perfectly in character. It's a common requirement particularly towards the end of a play. What fiendish work it is, I recall, just hanging around with nothing to say, pretending to be someone you aren't. Good training for drinks parties, but agony.
Comedies are the worst. In a tragedy, with any luck, you'll get stabbed. And that's fine. You take the hit and buckle slowly while uttering a brief terminal bleat. Something like 'all' will do. It's the same 'all' you emit when the doctor asks you to poke your tongue out and 'say ah' — only a bit louder and with a hint of metaphysical reflection. Then you fling yourself to the floor and lie still until the curtain goes down, taking care not inflate your chest too obviously as you breathe. You might even snatch a few minutes' kip. But comedies are different. You don't get knifed at the end of a comedy. Chances are you'll face one of those long wrapping-up scenes where all the conflicts are settled, the lovers reconciled, cross-dressers exposed, orphans re-inherited and so on. You might be standing there for 20 minutes doing damn all but trying to look involved. It's tough.
Attentive inaction is the wisest course.
But then you wonder if you are doing too little. You persuade yourself to serve up a sly morsel from your rich hamper of observed behaviour, You attempt a discreet smile here, you conjure a little pout there. You compose a frown or a dainty hand-gesture or a sneering curl of the lip. You twitch your nose or shift your weight, you fold your arms or you raise a curious eyebrow and rest a forefinger on the chin to suggest a debonair intellect artfully engaged. But then you worry you are doing too much, You lower your hands and you wipe your face smooth of expression like a plasterer finishing a layer of wet paste.
You immobilise your brows and fix your eyes into that glaring little spotlight to the left of centre-stage. But no. You're becom ing rigid. You sneak a look into the audience to see how your absorbed idleness is being received. No one is watching you.
Disaster! You are on stage, but ignored. Did all your training and experience count for nothing? Has your painstaking obser vation of your friends and relatives led to this — to invisibility! What humiliation.
And the show's nearly over so you must do something — some little thing — to make your presence felt at least, and to convince yourself that those hungry years at the Uxbridge Central Conservatoire of Action, Diction and Gesticulation were not wast ed. So you blink your eyes, moisten your lips, worry your chin, tweak your nape, cast your eyes over your costume, discover an imaginary dog-hair on your lapel, frown at it, lick your fingertips, nab it and flick it away at arm's length with that delicately
disdainful gesture you saw a mime artist simulate outside the Pompidou Centre. In other words, you become a twitching mass of irrelevance. But so what? Now everyone is watching you — for the wrong reasons.
Though my career was short-lived I still experience a wretched shudder when the final scene of a comedy unfolds. Last week, at The Provoked Wife, I scanned the crowded stage for signs of subtle panic.
The entire company, I was relieved to note, were perfectly at ease in their borrowed skins. Mike Hayley, as Razor, is especially effective in this witty, moderndress production.
At the Young Vic another classic has been updated. Yasmin Wilde leads a mag nificent cast in an Asian rewrite of Hobson's Choice. I loved this pacy, topical new show which is touring — or tearing — around the country all summer, And if you're wondering why I'm not discussing these plays in greater detail, I'm afraid there's very little one can say about classic comedies staged with so much panache. Besides. I'm a critic. My joy is to criticise. Praise makes very dull work indeed.