Just the other day I was writing here about first night mishaps, and how, “if something can go wrong on a first night, it will — the night where the stakes are highest for a production on view to critics and/or the major investors.”
Last night’s opening night of King Lear at the National passed, happily, without any (noticeable) mishaps. But at a preview two nights earlier, in the middle of the first act, something did go wrong – badly. Sam Troughton, who was playing Edmund, dried in the middle of a speech – not in the sense of forgetting his lines, but literally so, in that he couldn’t produce a voice to complete the line.
BBC Front Row presenter Mark Lawson was witness to it, as he was in the house that night ahead of interviewing Simon Russell Beale the next morning. And on Wednesday evening’s edition, we heard from both Lawson and Beale about just what happened, or at least Beale’s necessarily limited perspective.
As he told Lawson, he wasn’t much involved.
It was a very odd sensation for me – I have very little to do with character of Edmund,” he said. “So when he’s onstage I’m getting ready for my next bit. I make an entrance at back of theatre, and I saw Mendes whiz past and he said Sam’s lost his voice. I didn’t hear it – you know more about it than I did – and for the rest of the first half I couldn’t get any more information, because every time I came off stage the relevant people weren’t there. It was a very peculiar feeling. I still don’t [what happened], but it must have been terrifying. His voice completely gave out.
Other actors were none the wiser either. Beale reported that Stephen Boxer, who was playing Edmund’s father Gloucester, apparently told him, “That’s a very bold choice in the Olivier Theatre to be that quiet!”
But the show must, as ever, go on – just as it did when Beale himself broke a finger onstage during a performance of Timon of Athens at the National Theatre last year. He tried to carry on, but eventually told the audience what had happened, and the actor he was sharing the stage with him told him, “Go now!” He duly did and went to St Thomas’s Hospital, aware that the performance would now be continuing without him. “Within nine minutes, they had the understudy on and dressed!”
This time, Beale himself paid Troughton’s understudy Paapa Essiedu – “who is not long out of Guildhall”, Beale pointed out – an interval visit, “to pat him on the back.” He found that he was “fantastically cool” – cooler than he himself felt, he admitted. “A bit of you goes in your head, we can’t do the second half. The coward in me wanted to tell the audience we can’t do this, but that’s not the way we do things.”
As Beale says, “I’m rather proud of this team for just willing it forward.”
And as Mendes took to the stage himself at the start of the second act to tell the audience of the change of cast, he told them, “You are in the privileged position of seeing not one but two actors’ nightmares,” as one lost his voice and another had to go on at short notice.
But the theatre is a place of fast recovery, too. Not just that the show was saved on Tuesday night, but by last night, there was no sign of any strain on Troughton, either.
That’s a happier outcome that the performance of Loot on Shaftesbury Avenue where an understudy had to take over mid-performance at the Lyric Theatre from Leonard Rossiter, who was playing Inspector Truscott, after he was found collapsed in his dressing room. Rossiter, who was just 57 at the time, died later the same evening. A report in the Glasgow Herald at the time described what happened:
Ray Cooney, artistic director of the Theatre of Comedy Company, which is staging the show, said Mr Rossiter missed an entrance about how half through the perofrmance. ‘When the manager went to see if he was all right, he collapsed and was taken to hospital. The show was completed with an understudy,’ Mr Cooney said.
And Cooney also told the paper,
It is a demanding role, but it is something that he took in his stride. Leonard Rossiter was such a fit man, he looked after himself so he could do his job properly. For example, he played squash three times a week.”