Theatre quotes, anecdotes, and disasters

In 1960, when I was twelve, I was taken to the Old Vic in London to see my first Romeo and Juliet.  It was directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starred a young Judi Dench as Juliet.  I went with my parents.  It turned out that Judi Dench’s parents were there, too.  When Juliet came on and said to the Nurse (played by Peggy Mount), ‘Where are my mother and my father, Nurse?’ a reassuring voice called out from the stalls, ‘Here we are, darling, in Row G.’  I have been collecting theatre stories ever since.

Indeed, when I go to the theatre I almost want something to go wrong.  Never mind the cast of the current touring production of the musical Titanic being outraged because audience members were following the World Cup on their mobile phones, I was at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon when the late, great Nicol Williamson, in the middle of a schools’ matinée of Macbeth, kicked a wooden stool across the stage in a fury and bellowed at the noisy children in the stalls to ‘belt up or get out’.   I was at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin on the night Norman Rodway tripped on stage and, literally, broke a leg.  I was at the Mermaid Theatre in London on the first night of William Trevor’s The Old Boys starring the mighty Sir Michael Redgrave, who had a lifelong terror of first nights.  Halfway through the play the earpiece that was feeding him his lines slipped its moorings and clattered to the floor, leaving the great actor bereft and speechless.

I wish I had been there when Redgrave’s contemporary, Sir Ralph Richardson, was appearing in Brighton in the pre-London run of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, and, mid-performance, came down to the front of the stage and enquired, ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’   A man in the circle identified himself.  Sir Ralph looked up and said, ‘Terrible play, isn’t it, doctor?’ before returning upstage and carrying on with it.

I got to know Sir Ralph in the 1970s when I was artistic director of the Oxford Theatre Festival.  He was both full of good sense (‘Acting is the ability to keep an audience from coughing,’ he liked to say) and gloriously eccentric.  More than once he was found scrabbling on all fours in a dark corner of the wings, moaning plaintively, ‘Has anyone seen my talent?  It’s small, but it used to be quite shiny.’

Sir John Gielgud kindly came to Oxford for me to recreate some golden moments from his famous Richard II.  When I marvelled at how he managed to cry at exactly the same point every time he performed a particular speech, he murmured apologetically, ‘Bladder too near my eyes, I’m afraid.’  Sir John was a walking encyclopaedia of theatre lore.  He told me that as a boy he had been there when his great-aunt, Ellen Terry, delivered the immortal line, ‘Let us find a nosy cook.’  On his last first night in the West End, Gielgud, aged 80, briefly forgot his lines, stamped his foot impatiently until the prompt came and then carried on. 

Rex Harrison carried on until three weeks before he died, aged 82, playing in Somerset Maugham’s The Circle on Broadway.  He had pancreatic cancer, but preferred to be onstage than off.  He used to say, ‘Nobody is as interesting to spend an evening with as a really good part.’  I met him by chance towards the end of his life and only because he was partially blind.  He was coming out of the Ritz Hotel in London and bumped into me at the foot the steps.  He was going to the Caprice restaurant nearby and we walked there together.  When we arrived, he enquired, ‘Why have you brought me here, young man?’  I explained that I hadn’t, but he seemed happy to talk to me all the same.  He told me that at his first ever appearance on stage at the Liverpool Playhouse he only had one line.  He had to run on and say excitedly, ‘It’s a baby – fetch a doctor.’  Unfortunately, he ran on and said, ‘It’s a doctor – fetch a baby.’

I was a friend of Patrick Garland who directed Harrison in the 1981 revival of My Fair Lady in which the star, now in his seventies, reprised his role as the irascible Henry Higgins.  Harrison’s poor sight meant that on more than one occasion he walked off the stage straight into the orchestra pit, and his advanced years made him insist on having Cathleen Nesbitt play his mother in the revival as she had done in the original production.  Nesbitt, however, was now in her nineties, uncertain of her lines (occasionally convinced she was in a revival of Camelot rather than My Fair Lady) and quite frail.  Occasionally there were scuffles in the wings as she and Rex Harrison tussled over which of them should have access to the oxygen cylinder first.

I was a friend, too, of the stout character actor Peter Bull, who played Pozzo in the original London production of Waiting for Godot in 1955.  His mother brought her best friend to the opening night, but all Mrs Bull could think to say when she reached her son’s dressing room at the conclusion of the ground-breaking drama was, ‘Gladys thought the brass-work in the stalls beautifully polished.’  Bull also recalled standing on stage and hearing a lady in the front row whisper to her neighbour, ‘I do wish the fat one would go away.’   On the first night of Titus Andronicus at Stratford in 1955, at the climax of the tragedy, Vivien Leigh playing the cruelly ravished Lavinia, who has had her hands chopped off and her tongue cut out, dropped the stick with which she was supposed to write the names of her assailants in the sand.  It clattered noisily onto the stage, prompting Noël Coward to arrive in her dressing room after the performance, wagging his finger reprovingly and admonishing her: ‘Tut-tut, butter-stumps.’

One or two of these stories feature in the new one-man show I'm doing at the moment here at the Edinburgh Fringe.  It’s called Break a leg! and it’s inspired by my wife’s anthology of theatrical quotations and by some of the legendary performers I have been privileged to encounter over the years.  Before the show I warm up with an exercise taught me by Sir Donald Sinden, who gave me a master-class on elocution, explaining that ‘it’s your vowels that give you volume and your consonants that give you clarity.’  In front of my dressing-room mirror, following a deep breath, I shall repeat his mantra: ‘Hip bath, hip bath, lavatory, lavatory, bidet, bidet, douche.’  And after the show, I shall follow Sinden’s advice, too, and not read the reviews.  ‘If it’s good, it’s good,’ he told me.  ‘If it isn’t, you’ll know.’ 

Last year, in London, at the opening of his show Young Frankenstein, I asked Mel Brooks, then 91 and a little hard of hearing, what he felt about critics.  ‘They’re very noisy at night,’ he said.  ‘You can’t sleep in the country because of them.’   ‘No’, I said, ‘critics not crickets.’  ‘Oh, critics!’ cried Mel.  ‘What good are they?  They can’t make music with their hind legs.’

PS  Of course, some critics are surprisingly perceptive.  I've been blessed with four and five star reviews this time round, so I'm grateful and I'm not complaining.

I'm appearing in Break a Leg! at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, until 26 August - every day at 4.30 pm, with an EXTRA SHOW this Friday, 17 August, at 6,00 pm: www.pleasance.co.uk

Break a leg! A Dictionary of Theatrical Quotations, compiled by Michele Brown and introduced by me, is published by Notting Hill Editions

Gyles Brandreth