I suppose this is what it feels like when an era ends. Michael Gambon has announced that he will not be taking any more stage roles as, at the age of 74, he now struggles to remember his lines:
“It’s a horrible thing to admit but I can’t do it. It breaks my heart. It’s when the script’s in front of me and it takes forever to learn. It’s frightening,” he said in an interview with the Sunday Times. After trying to work with an earpiece, the Great Gambon has decided to restrict himself to screen acting. Of course, he is a magnificent actor in any medium, but it’s a sad thing to realise that we will no longer be able to witness his extraordinary talent in the flesh.
I feel very lucky to have seen Michael Gambon live on a couple of occasions – firstly as a magnificently devilish and operatic ‘Volpone’ at the National Theatre – the mountebank scene in particular sticks in my memory, as his accent took a hilarious, rambling tour around the British Isles – and later as a truly loathsome Davies in ‘The Caretaker’. I’ll always remember his grotesque way of eating, his long, spidery fingers wandering over his food.
One of our favourite clichés as a profession is that, at a post-show discussion with the audience, someone will always ask, ‘How do you learn all those lines?’ Actually, I’ve never been asked that – usually the questions are far more intelligent and probing. But I’ve certainly asked it of myself. How do we do it? And why doesn’t it always work?
An actor’s memory must be the most important tool in the kit, and losing it is certainly the biggest fear. ‘What if I forget it all?’ must be the main constituent of any actor’s first-night dread, and it is a wobble that can resurface throughout a run. I always breathe a hefty sigh of relief and pat myself heartily on the back when I make it through a whole run of performances without buggering anything significant up.
There are a couple of occasions that shine out from my career like beacons, as a permanent reminder – a memini oblivionem, if you will (‘remember that you must forget’). The first came in an otherwise entirely wonderful production of Stephen Jeffreys’s adaptation of ‘Hard Times’ at the Watermill Theatre in 2001. I had survived the entire run unscathed, practically word-perfect, and then we arrived at the final performance (if memory serves) and I had one of my best friends in the audience. In one of my favourite scenes – a duologue – I inadvertently answered a question with my response to my fellow actor’s subsequent line. The other actor continued and gave me the cue which would have led me back to that line. I remember thinking ‘Well, I can’t say it again,’ and then every thought flew out of my head. My comrade on stage experienced a similar failure of the imagination, and time came to a dead halt. I briefly thought, ‘This is really funny!’, then I remembered that no, it wasn’t, it was actually very serious and I needed to pull myself together. The seconds/minutes/hours flew past and I floundered around, rambling appallingly and toying bizarrely with my glass of fake whisky, before I somehow managed to clamber back into the script, having cut a page and a half of useful plot. Afterwards I staggered off stage into the arms of a kindly fellow cast member, who was no doubt happy it hadn’t happened to him.
The second time was in ‘Private Lives’ in Oldham, my first job after nearly a year in ‘The Woman In Black’. The Coward play seemed like a breeze in comparison – a smaller part (Victor Prynne, the straight-backed husband), easy dialogue etc. I was dangerously relaxed on the first night – so much so, that in my very first scene with my new bride Amanda, my mind wandered off-piste and I lost my way. I leapt ahead by about 20 lines and, for some reason, decided to call Amanda ‘Sybil’, the name of a character who had yet to appear and who neither of us had even heard of at that point. My Amanda, the very wonderful Jackie Morrison, took the scene in hand and I wobbled squeakily to the end.
These little episodes have come in very useful as admonishments if I ever feel my concentration wavering, but, in a way, I feel slightly more forgiving towards myself as I get older. Performing a play is a numbers game: there will usually be casualties from one quarter or another.
But losing your way for a few lines in the occasional show is a different thing entirely to realising that your memory is failing you permanently. I have worked with many actors who have told me that, somewhere around the age of 60, it starts getting harder to learn a script. Add to this the strange phenomenon that acting seems to get scarier the older you get, rather than less so, and the profession can look like an unfriendly environment to the older actor.
When you are young and self-confident, full of box-fresh invincibility, it’s easier to take the stresses of performance in your stride. But as the years go by, I think you become more aware of the potential pitfalls of stepping on stage – after all, you’ve either fallen into the holes yourself, or observed a poor fellow actor take a tumble. This inevitably erodes your armour to some extent.
But the truth is that it’s quite unreasonable to expect ourselves to keep going at the same level of intensity for ever. Sadly, a decline in our ability to learn a long script is as inevitable as the decline in a sports player’s ability to run the length of a football pitch. As the sports man is forced to hang up his boots, so the actor must eventually put away his highlighter pen – for those larger parts, at least.
However, this doesn’t have to signal the end of an actor’s career. Although Mr Gambon obviously doesn’t like using an earpiece, these days plenty of other older leading actors don’t seem to mind so much – indeed I recently discovered that Angela Lansbury employed one to play Madame Arcati in ‘Blithe Spirit’ in the West End. It was a vibrant and very funny performance, so it was a bit of a surprise to discover that her lines were being fed to her. But actually it doesn’t diminish her achievement in any way; an earpiece couldn’t have helped her to play in such a physical and inventive way. And of course most people know that Marlon Brando used an earpiece or even cue cards in many of his later film roles – see this extract from ‘Hearts of Darkness’ about the making of ‘Apocalypse Now’:
I think we should really take Mr Gambon’s stage exit as an opportunity to celebrate this extraordinary actor; to say thank you for those remarkable stage performances, and to look forward to many years of work on screen.