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Mark Shenton: Stage fright is a gut-rotting terror even for the greatest actors

Robert Glenister (Dave Moss) in Glengarry Glen Ross. Photo: Tristram Kenton Robert Glenister in Glengarry Glen Ross. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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There’s a deeply uncomfortable moment towards the end of the National Theatre’s production of Follies when Philip Quast, playing Benjamin Stone, sings: “Me, I like to live / Me, I like to love,” and stumbles on the next lyric. The audience is suddenly put on high alert: is it the actor forgetting where he is? Or is it the character? He resumes, but soon calls for the chorus and orchestra to stop.

Read our interview with Philip Quast

It’s a brilliant metatheatrical moment, deliberately blurring the boundaries between the reality of the show and the reality of the moment.

But sometimes this happens for real. And it’s one of the reasons Giles Coren gave for being uncomfortable about going to the theatre when interviewed about presenting the BBC’s new TV incarnation of Front Row: “I just worry about the poor bastards forgetting their lines.”

At least in telly-land every word is teleprompted, so it’s never going to happen to him.

But we’ve all been there when we’re off-script. Even in conversation, we sometimes lose the train of where we are going.

Sometimes, it speaks to a deeper anxiety about something else. For actors, this is amplified when they’re on stage. Just the other week, Robert Glenister froze mid-performance of his hugely acclaimed role in the West End production of Glengarry Glen Ross; the curtain was brought in and his understudy had to complete the rest of the show. He took the next week off, but was scheduled to return this week. He had also been taken ill at an earlier performance in the run, reportedly saying “Oh, God” before falling to the floor and clutching his chest.

The precise cause of his difficulties are not yet confirmed, but the actor recently lost a legal battle with HM Revenue and Customs, when he was ordered to repay more than a decade of national insurance contributions totalling almost £150,000. He’d told the Financial Times: “My case is one of a few hundred involving many of the UK’s most successful actors… It is yet another unfair cash grab that treats genuinely self-employed actors as employees contrary to government policy.”

But there’s a different kind of debt that actors have to settle every night with the theatre gods as they face the demons of exposure. “That gut-rotting terror before you walk on to the stage never leaves you,” Derek Jacobi confessed a few years ago; in 1980 he’d had a breakdown mid-performance of a world tour of Hamlet. He didn’t return to the stage for two years. When he did, in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Much Ado About Nothing, he admitted: “On the first night I was rigid with nerves, but somehow got through it.”

Daniel Day-Lewis, who walked out of a National Theatre production of Hamlet in 1989, never returned to the theatre again. At the time, he said he had seen the ghost of his dead father on stage, but he has since clarified what happened in an interview with Time magazine: “I may have said a lot of things in the immediate aftermath and to some extent I probably saw my father’s ghost every night, because of course if you’re working in a play like Hamlet you explore everything through your own experience. That correspondence between the son and the father who is no longer alive played a huge part in that experience, but I don’t remember seeing any ghosts of my father on that dreadful night.”

Another famous walk-out was Stephen Fry, who abandoned the original 1995 West End production of Simon Gray’s Cell Mates immediately after the first night. Gray, who felt his play had been sabotaged by Fry’s actions, stated: “I have great sympathy because he was hurt and stressed, but what he left behind was the most awful chaos and distress for other people who loved him, including me.”

Yet stage fright isn’t something an actor has control over. In a New Yorker review by Joan Acocella of a book on stage fright by Sara Solovitch, it is explained: “In response to stress, the adrenal glands pump adrenaline into the bloodstream, causing the body to shift into a state of high arousal. The person’s muscles tense, he sweats and shakes, his heart pounds, his mouth goes dry, he has trouble breathing, he may become nauseated or dizzy, and his throat constricts, making his voice rise in pitch. This is the so-called ‘fight or flight’ response, which our species is thought to have developed because it helped prepare the body for forceful action in response to a threat. But what Cro-Magnon man needed upon finding a bear in his cave is not what a modern person needs to play King Lear. Without the release of abrupt action, the hyperactivation becomes, basically, a panic attack.”

Fry has said that when stage fright hits, the audience sees “the shrivelled penis in your head.” But as Jacobi has also remarked: “You have to face your demons. Every actor is frightened. The only trick is not to let the fears rule you. But that’s the buzz of it. If you can get from start to finish, it’s wonderful.”

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