Mark Lockyer: ‘I was convinced I would die if I went back on stage’
There’s a growing awareness of issues around mental health, but it’s still something people often feel uncomfortable talking about.
A few months ago, mental health charter #Time4Change was launched by Annemarie Lewis Thomas, founder of the Musical Theatre Academy in London, inviting drama schools, theatres and agents to make fact sheets available to students, performers and clients to find help through. Meanwhile, The Stage, with Equity, Spotlight and the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine, has launched ArtsMinds, a website to support entertainment professionals facing mental health issues.
Mark Lockyer, a leading classical actor who has worked with both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, knows the importance of this from the inside out, and has made a revelatory one-man show, Living With the Lights On, that tells his own severe battle with mental illness.
But first he’s back with the RSC – the company he literally walked out on when his illness was at its peak in 1995. He is playing the lead role in its London transfer of The Alchemist at the Barbican Centre. Last year, he sent artistic director Gregory Doran a postcard saying: “I’d love to come back to the company, I’ve been away for a while, but now I’m back.”
He was on holiday when Doran phoned him. “He levelled with me and said: ‘What did you mean by that card?’ I was on the horns of a dilemma – did I tell him the truth, that I was a chronic alcoholic, I suffer severe bipolar disorder, it’s wrecked my fucking life, but I’m all right now? And I did – I said to him I’m not not going to be a mug and tell him a bullshit story. I was honest. And for two days, I wondered why I said it, but then an offer came to join the company again.”
It has brought him full circle to Stratford-upon-Avon, where he started experiencing the symptoms that transformed his life, without understanding what was happening to him.
After graduating from RADA, he joined the National, where he was in productions directed by Richard Eyre, Declan Donnellan and Nicholas Hytner, before joining the RSC. There, he worked with David Thacker, Sam Mendes, Gale Edwards and Adrian Noble. His career was very much in the ascendancy.
“I’d had a successful season with the RSC in 1993. I’d been commended and came second in the Ian Charleson award for classical actors under 30, but I realised at the end of that season that things were starting to become slightly strange. Although I didn’t know it then, my alcohol consumption was starting to take off, and it contributed to my bipolar disorder. I never had a clue. I first realised something was wrong when I went home to my mum at end of the season in 1993. It was January and we started drinking together, and I remember very clearly that we were having vodka and tonic, and the next thing I knew I was shouting at her at the top of my voice and being very abusive, then I woke up the next morning and didn’t know why I’d done it. It began this inexplicable descent of shame, really, and trying to protect myself and failing miserably.”
The story gets a whole lot worse before it gets better.
“I apologised to my mum, of course, and put it down to drinking. I became very reclusive and didn’t go out much. At the end of 1994, I was invited to do another season with the RSC, and was offered Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, and roles in The Taming of the Shrew and The Cherry Orchard. But I began feeling very ill at ease with everything and didn’t want to go out, and found making decisions very difficult. I went on holiday to Corfu on my own for a week and I started what I now understand to be hallucinating – I became deeply paranoid. I was staying in a villa in Corfu and I became convinced that the woman running it was going to stab me, so I jumped out the window with my stuff, left £50 on the table and did a runner. I was completely powerless over these incidents of bollocks.”
Q&A: Mark Lockyer
What was your first job? Talk of the Devil at Watford Palace, directed by Bill Alexander, in which Ian Dury played the devil. I earned £186.76, but had no lines.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? You have no power over the direction of your career.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Ken Campbell taught me improvisation and became a long-term friend I worked with many times. He encouraged me to believe that anything is possible in the theatre.
What’s your best advice for auditions? You’re completely powerless, so just be yourself.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? All I really knew from the time I was 11 playing Giles Corey in a school production of The Crucible and got a laugh on the line “a fart on thee Thomas Putman” was to act. I mused on other jobs, but I knew that, as an actor, I could be anything I wanted to be for a bit. Perhaps, on reflection, my desire for escapism was part of my downfall, but in my heart, I knew I had to perform.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I used to be riddled with them, but I don’t have a single one now. Before I go on, I say: “Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth, fuck Macbeth and bollocks.”
While rehearsing Romeo and Juliet, director Adrian Noble pulled him to one side. “He told me: ‘Mark, you’re really getting on my nerves, I’ve been rehearsing with you all day, you’ve given me eight different versions of Mercutio, for fuck’s sake, just go home and pick one and stay with it and rehearse that.’ ”
Mercutio is, he says, “a great part to play when you’re bipolar and feeling high – my imagination was firing on all cylinders”.
But highs are followed by extreme lows. “And then I thought: ‘What am I doing here again?’ I said in my head: ‘Jack is all work and no play.’ I had nine months left in three shows, and I began to resent it. Things began to topple – I had an affair, which I never would have done if I was compos mentis. I started drinking heavily and took great enjoyment from sticking a spanner in the works at every opportunity, including on stage. I was very unwell – life became like being in my own film, in which I cut one day to my home realising I’d been in bed all day, I hadn’t eaten or washed and had to do Mercutio that night. I went to the doctor and was told there was nothing wrong with me, I should be very happy with my life and I wasn’t depressed.”
He sought solace outside the theatre: “I got involved with someone else. Sex and drinking were real comforts. Towards the end of the season, I went home to my mother’s, and she said: ‘Come on, you’ve got a matinee,’ but I couldn’t get out of bed. I was convinced I would die if I went back on stage.”
He never returned for the final month at Stratford, and they put the understudy in. The shows moved to Newcastle, where he rejoined the company; then they came to London in 1996.
“But by this time I was not washing or taking care of myself, and l’d lost vast amounts of weight. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. We opened The Taming of the Shrew, and I got it to press night, took a bow, and said: ‘Fuck this, I’m off.’ ” He returned for Romeo and Juliet, and the same thing happened: “I opened it and then pissed off.” Still the RSC persevered: when Noble was bringing his production of The Cherry Orchard to the West End, he was invited back to reprise his Stratford role.
“My agent rang and said Adrian wanted me to return, and I said all right, knowing in my heart I wouldn’t finish the contract. I didn’t care, I needed the money and was totally irresponsible.”
He still didn’t know what he needed treatment for. “I was in and out of psychiatric units, but I had no real diagnosis. Bipolar disorder was a fantastically difficult thing to diagnose. I was put on Prozac, and putting a manic depressive on that, I was high as a kite. I was struggling to pay the rent and living like a pig but hiding it well, or thinking I was.”
Yet again, he left the show after it opened. “I just walked off, and ended up in west Wales hitching with an eccentric travelling masseuse, pretending to be a Russian folk singer. I was completely fucking mad and very unwell. Over the next year and a half I lived on the road, spent vast amounts of time in psychiatric hospitals and was drinking a lot.”
And then something serious happened, which led him to his lowest point, but more importantly, to recovery. “While I was being detoxed, I was finally diagnosed with severe mixed-state bipolar disorder. Mixed-state means that when I’m ill, I can show symptoms of being high, but, at same time, also be depressed.”
He has, he acknowledges, no power over the illness itself, which is genetic in its roots, though he medicates it now with lithium, but “the root of the problem and where I did have power over was alcohol. I remember being sectioned in the secure unit of a hospital and someone telling me: ‘You might have a problem with alcohol.’ ”
He laughs now – it’s so obvious – but it took him, he says, “eight years for me to get back on my feet”.
He was in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at the Almeida, directed by Rupert Goold, and found the whole cycle beginning again. “I didn’t want to go out, and was afraid of going on stage. I thought, ‘I can’t do it anymore’. I was doing a workshop at the National at the end of 2008, and I couldn’t remember the lines. I was crying in the corner of one of the offices, and the next day I was in an acute ward in a hospital in Haringay.”
By now he had become homeless. “I was living in St Mungo’s Hostel in Swiss Cottage. And I was ill for a very long time. It didn’t take me months to get better, it took years. I lost everything.” He says now of bipolar illness: “It’s vicious and nasty – people’s lives are wrecked forever with this illness.”
Mark Lockyer’s top tips for an aspiring actor
• Never give up.
• Get a hobby.
• Be grateful for what you have, however little.
His own story, however, does not end in defeat, but in recovery. He was in a psychiatric ward in King’s Cross in 2011 and hadn’t told his agent he was there when she called him. “I was trying to keep up appearances that everything was fine, but it was far from fine. She told me that she had a meeting for me with the director Polly Findlay at Lyric Hammersmith the next day at 5pm. I went and thought I’d done well, but I was stinking of alcohol.”
By the time he finally got sober, he wrote to her by hand to apologise. “I told her I’d had serious issues with drugs and alcohol and I was very sorry that my professionalism had been tainted, and she replied saying how pleased she was that I’d written and assuring me we’d work together.”
And she was true to her word: she invited him to come in to see her about playing Subtle in The Alchemist. “With my record, I knew that if I was going to get that job I would have to be extra good. They could have had anyone. So I read it and sat down for two weeks, studying every word, and then went to meet her. And it didn’t matter whether I got the job, but I knew I presented her with the best I had.”
He duly got the job, and had also started writing his one-man show about his journey towards recovery. “The thing I have to hold on to more than anything else is honesty. The thing I learnt about myself was that I was quite dishonest in lots of ways. I wasn’t dishonest in a malicious way, but I didn’t have the tools or courage or confidence to say: ‘This is who I am.’ ”
Today, he has told me – and tells audiences in his shows – exactly who he is. And he concludes: “I have no regrets really about what happened to me. I’m sad of course about what I did to other people, but I had to go through that to get to here and where I am today. I now call a spade a spade – I’m honest with myself and others, and that’s what keeps me well.”
CV: Mark Lockyer
Born: 1965, Guernsey
Landmark productions: Funete Ovejuna, National Theatre (1989), The Madness of George III, National Theatre (1991), The Merchant of Venice, Royal Shakespeare Company (1993), King Lear, RSC (1993), The Taming of the Shrew, RSC (1995), The Cherry Orchard, RSC (1995), Romeo and Juliet, RSC (1995), Hamlet, Shakespeare’s Globe (2000), Othello, RSC (2004), Theatre of Blood, National Theatre (2005), Vernon God Little, Young Vic, London (2007), The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Almeida Theatre, London (2008), The Alchemist, RSC (2016)
Agent: Maureen Vincent, United Agents
The Alchemist runs at the Barbican Centre, London, from September 2-October 1. Living With the Lights On runs at the Young Vic, London, from December 7-23. For support through ArtsMinds, visit artsminds.co.uk