(Mark Lawson’s article appeared in the Guardian 12/16; Photo: ‘I miscalculated’ … Ken Stott in The Prince’s Play, which Richard Eyre put on at the National. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian.)
How does it feel to go back on stage night after night in a play that’s been mauled by critics and deserted by audiences? Richard Eyre and other directors and actors relive their trauma
Movies, TV shows and books can all get terrible reviews and small audiences, but the difference when this happens in theatre is that the actors have to go back on stage and remake the work just after critics have declared it disastrous. “It is so crushing for actors to have to go on night after night bearing the weight of failure,” says Richard Eyre, artistic director of the Royal National Theatre from 1987 to 1997. “And that’s one of the reasons actors are such stoics. For directors and writers, there’s a sense of disembowelment you carry round if you’ve had a major failure – but they can just fuck off to Tenerife, and some do. Actors are obliged to soak it up.”
Actor Michael Simkins, who wrote the theatrical memoir What’s My Motivation?, says: “If I had to articulate what it feels like to be in the middle of a play you feel is dying on its arse, it’s a cold sense of dread, like battery acid in your stomach. After terrible reviews, a sort of numbness sets in that is still there for the second night. You haven’t yet fully processed it. The first thing you do is tell all your friends who have booked tickets to cancel.”
Both men express sympathy and empathy for all involved in Moira Buffini’s play Manor, which received a rare one-star review in the Guardian, and an even scarcer zero rating from the Times. That mauling also brought back memories for Jonathan Moore, a playwright, opera director and librettist who, as a young actor, appeared in Nicholas Wright’s The Gorky Brigade at the Royal Court in 1979. Wright later wrote two of the National Theatre’s most successful new plays – Mrs Klein and Vincent in Brixton – but his early work about Russian politics received brutal reviews. In the Daily Mail, Jack Tinker wrote: “The writer should be sent to the salt mines of Siberia to learn how to write.” Moore remembers “looking up at one of the boxes by the side of the stage, and there was a guy reading a newspaper all through the play”.
Simkins once suffered a stark example of the unevenness of an acting career. In the late 1980s, he portrayed a young Italian-American opposite Michael Gambon in Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge, directed by Alan Ayckbourn. After playing to 97% capacity at the National, it transferred to the West End for six months. Over the next two years, though, Simkins featured in two legendary disasters. As a bonus for the success of the Miller, NT artistic director Peter Hall invited Ayckbourn to do anything he wanted. He chose John Ford’s 1633 revenge drama, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore.
“The first night party was in the Olivier theatre bar,” recalls Simkins. “As I pushed open the door from backstage, four actor friends who had been in the audience all avoided my gaze as I headed towards them. They looked down into their drinks. Then someone struck up a conversation about a play he’d seen me in six months before.” According to Daniel Rosenthal’s book The National Theatre Story, ’Tis Pity half-filled (or worse) the 1,100-seat Olivier across 68 performances. Strikingly, Ayckbourn’s official website, usually maintained punctiliously, still notes that the opening and closing dates of the show are “to be confirmed”.
At a hit, people encourage each other to laugh and applaud. In a half-empty theatre, they ramp up each other’s misery
Simkins seemed assured a happier experience when cast in Michael Frayn’s 1990 play Look Look. Frayn’s previous two shows – Noises Off and Benefactors – had been big London and New York hits, and propitiously this new work returned to the meta-theatrical comedy genre of Noises Off, one of the most successful plays of the 20th century. But where that play had been set backstage, Look Look dramatised an audience, so that ticket-buyers met a mirror image of the stalls on stage.
Simkins played the man in seat G15. During rehearsals, he “had the sense it wasn’t working but I looked around and lots of people were laughing. So I thought it must be OK. There were vague murmurings between the actors at lunch, when we went off for our egg and chips. ‘Do you think this is working?’ But it was never fully articulated.”
Peter Hall once wrote that no play that seriously fails to engage an audience at its first performance can be saved. “I remember,” says Simkins, “the general sense, in the first couple of previews, that the opening 20 minutes worked wonderfully. Then it sort of died like a battery running down.” Despite the dramatist “rewriting eight to 10 pages every day, on the first night it was absolutely obvious the play didn’t work.” One critic reported that “one leaves the theatre open-mouthed at the sheer awful” spectacle, and another of “having no idea what the usually adept Mr Frayn thought he was up to”.
In commercial theatre, failure brings economic stings for actors. Yet such was the commercial confidence in Look Look that Simkins had been “signed up for 52 weeks at a grand a week, by far the most I had ever earned”. But after the reviews, he was looking at unemployment within a fortnight.