A drink first?
There is a story — it has been around for hundreds of years — of an actor playing Shakespeare’s malevolent Richard III, with that long opening solo speech, who was barracked by the audience’s shouts of “You’re drunk!” He is supposed to have responded directly and just as bluntly “If you think I’m drunk, you wait till you see Buckingham!” Because the leading man and the colleague who played his supporter on the road to power had been on the razzle together.
Occasionally the story is “modernised” — told apocryphally about whatever prominent player is then associated with the bottle. “When Wilfrid Lawson played Richard III …”, “When Robert Newton played …”, “When Peter O’Toole …” Yes, you know what I’m going to say. None of those particular drinkers did play that particular ‘crookback’ king.
The nearest thing I have experienced — or the nearest sin I have committed — to the transgression of those legendary theatre boozers happened the first time I worked in Northern Ireland. We were in a drinking culture, both all around, and within that young company. The pubs were open all day there, which at that time was not the case in mainland Britain. I learned to drink gin, for the first time. On one memorable day, members of the company had been in the pub during the afternoon when we had a performance of “The Creeper” in the evening. Like any sane person, I don’t think you should drink before a show. But — how long before? Circumstances alter cases, some actors can cope with it, and some can’t. I was being led astray, but not disastrously. I did not overdo it, nor was there some later debacle on the stage.
It was all much quieter than that. I didn’t come on till late in the show, as the oddly described The Man in the Raincoat. In fact I was an investigating police officer. Maybe the playwright didn’t want to signal in advance that her play was to become a crime story. I had an intense and detailed scene about the victim with our young, but very ‘middle-aged’, leading man. In fact we were both twenty-three. And he was much more of a drinker than me.
Some indulgers become chatty, some horrendously voluble (and perhaps excruciatingly indiscreet). None of that here. Our lead was a strong silent drunk. I know he did drink quite heavily, but can’t remember that I ever saw this effect on him offstage. In the scene that night, he appeared question phobic and simply didn’t give my interrogation the answers I needed. Not as though alcohol had sabotaged his memory, just as though he wasn’t in the mood to co-operate. He looked at me when I questioned him with an attitude memorable for its unreasonableness. Seemingly: “You’re asking me? Don’t you know? You don’t seem very in charge of this scene. You haven’t forgotten any of the words, have you?”
Of course I ended up asking more and more “leading questions” — to put it more bluntly, supplying his lines as well as my own. And somehow we got the scene done, making — I can only hope — reasonable sense. Yes, finding the other person is squiffier than you can concentrate the mind straight away. Never again (he concluded sanctimoniously).
This wasn’t the story I was thinking of when I started writing. Other memories of drinkers (it’s not really that common — so you do remember instances) were in my mind. But out-ing fellow actors’ foibles can make you seem a prig, and I have tried to minimise doing so! One of my other drinker stories would definitely make me sound a pedant as well. So let’s leave it there.