In front of 800 raucous teenagers at the Everyman Palace Theatre in Cork, I was stabbed in the face, accidentally, while playing Hamlet. In the final scene of the show – Act V, Scene ii – the sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes, we got too close to each other and the accident happened. I was not expecting it and collapsed to the ground. The show was stopped, the safety curtain lowered and a polite round of applause issued forth from the bemused audience.
I was taken to hospital where, after a few days, many tests and three MRI scans, the diagnosis was pronounced: a traumatic brain injury. I was 24; I felt invincible and was certain I’d be back on stage soon. But as the injury progressed, days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, and I was still in hospital.
Brain injuries, like rehearsals, often get worse before they get better. Initially, I couldn’t walk or talk. I had a terrible tremor, so feeding myself was difficult. The neurologist assured me I would recover but could not say to what extent.
After a year, I had improved massively. I still had a slight tremor, double vision, ataxia (disorders affecting coordination) and speech difficulties but I toured the world with Pan Pan Theatre in, bizarrely, its version of Hamlet: Playing the Dane. I was excited to be playing Hamlet as my first role after the accident. I thought I could get straight back on the horse.
Later, things got tough. Nerve damage and brain injuries take years to heal. I hoped the symptoms would disappear. Five years on, I still had double vision, ataxia, speech difficulties and a host of mental health issues. I lost confidence – no longer able to walk into an audition and do what was asked of me, incredibly self conscious and insecure, I moved from Dublin back to my family home on the west coast. Not being in Dublin, auditions are few and far between. I wanted to keep working but it became hard for me to see it as anything more than a lost love.
Then, last year, after a bereavement, I decided to try again. I had been so wrapped up in what I couldn’t do for so long, I’d forgotten what I could. I began travelling to Dublin for auditions. I’m honest about my injury and deficits from the outset, which removes uncertainty for everyone involved. So far, I’ve done okay, but I haven’t cracked TV and film yet.
My approach to work is more wholesome now. I no longer try to ‘manage’ expectations of me, I just accept that I need to be kind to myself, as we all do. One Duck, my current employer, is so understanding and generous. The other two cast members are brilliant, as is the creative team. The role speaks to me – the play is set in Clare, where I’m from, with a character my age. It’s almost perfect, except they play darts a lot. I’ve destroyed several sets of darts and a wall during practice.
Nine years since the accident, the new me sees how fragile everything is, how vulnerable we are, how strong we can be. I have the injury to thank for that. Also, it’s a pretty good story.
Conor Madden appears in Flights, which runs at London’s Omnibus Theatre from February 11 to 29, following a tour of Ireland